The Watch

The Watch is concerned about the increasing pressure towards feudalism in the United States from corporations, social regressives, warmongers, and the media. We also are concerned with future history concerning our current times, as non-truths which are “widely reported” become the basis for completely false narratives.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Freedom isn't free. Yeah, there's a hefty f*ing fee.

This weekend I was visiting with an informal group of people from my hometown. The subject of red light cameras and police cameras on public streets came up, and someone noted that the British didn’t seem to mind police cameras being everywhere, covering most of London’s streets and public places. Someone else said that that was because of their recent history with Irish terrorists, and then a gentleman from my father’s generation said he couldn’t figure out all of the people who were fighting for civil liberties, like the ACLU; that freedoms needed to ebb and flow in response to the particular dangers of the times, and that freedoms were no good to you if you are dead.

I was really struck by what he said, because he had served in the military and is an intelligent person, and because I respect him. It saddened me a person like that could be so wrong. I presume that like everyone else in this country, he thinks that what the military does is “fight for our freedoms” or “fight to keep us free” or “sacrifice for liberty”. And that “fighting for freedom” is a good thing. In fact, accepting physical danger to preserve or advance the cause of American freedom is held up as one of the great virtues of our society . . . but only as long as it is done as military service. Given that basic military storyline, let us count the ways that this dangerous mindset does disservices to our society.

First of all, his statement dishonored the millions of American military war dead, veterans, and those serving currently. Apparently, even after all of those people give of themselves, sometimes to the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, in order to preserve and advance our freedom, we should give up those freedoms at the drop of a hat. We should open our lives completely to be surveilled upon, to be eavesdropped on, to be recorded. We should give up all of our privacy, and even our right not to be imprisoned indefinitely without being charged with a crime. We should give up our right to be protected from search and seizure without probable cause. And we should do all of this because we are scared. So, thanks for all the sacrifice, GIs! Thanks for bleeding to death on the fields of France and the deserts of Africa and the jungles of Vietnam. We’ll just throw those liberties you were fighting for away, because we are scared. What a dishonor to their sacrifice.

Second, what he said dishonored the ACLU and other “civil liberties nuts”. If standing up for American freedoms is really a good thing, then why would using legal means to preserve freedom be worse than killing, or dying, to preserve those same rights and freedoms? Our liberties need to be protected not only on battlefields but in courtrooms, classrooms, and in our discourse as well. If a group of lawyers protects my right of habeas corpus, am I supposed to be less grateful to them than a group of soldiers who are protecting habeas corpus by protecting the country from invasion? (And conversely, how am I not to be contemptuous of a group of politicians who want to take that freedom away?) As for physical bravery, I think even being an ACLU lawyer must involve some of that, as they are scapegoated by daddy-state-loving authoritarian brownshirts constantly. How many ACLU lawyers feel, if they were threatened with physical harm by a mouth-breathing Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh listener, that they would be protected by the rest of society? At least the bravery of military people is (theoretically, in words) appreciated.

Third, his statement dishonors the American people, many of whom would accept greater physical risk to preserve our freedoms. My feeling is that whoever might be gunning for us can’t get us all, and in the meantime I don’t want the government listening to my phone calls. If someone who is fighting to preserve our freedoms (in the courts or the halls of government) dies in a terrorist attack, how different is their sacrifice than that of a soldier who is killed on the battlefield? If exposing yourself to danger to preserve our freedom is such a great thing, then why can’t all of American citizens see that exposing themselves to a danger with a very very small likelihood (being harmed in a terrorist attack) in order to preserve our freedoms is a no-brainer? There are balances between freedoms and public order and safety that we constantly make, of course, such as having laws constraining our behavior and police forces to back them up. But the freedoms we are now sacrificing on the altar of our irrational fears are those supposedly given to us in the Constitution. The founding fathers didn’t give me the right to speed or to play my stereo loudly at night and wake the neighbors . . . but they explicitly protected me from blanket search, seizure, torture, and indefinite imprisonment. I can’t be 100% sure, but I think that Jefferson and Madison would have preferred for us to protect our liberty and not be such quaking cowards.

Fourth, what he said displayed an incredible ignorance of how our system is designed to work. The President and the entire executive branch are given the job of protecting and upholding the Constitution, not protecting the physical safety of the citizens. We expect the government to do that as well, but only within the rules set forth in the Constitution. Protecting us constitutionally can be challenging sometimes; it probably requires much more vigilance, dedication, and energy than just putting a camera on all of us 24 hours a day and recording all of our phone conversations and emails. But that is the job, and only people who are up to the challenge should apply.

Fifth, implicit in his argument is the assumption that the federal government did NOT have the means to properly protect us before they started abridging our constitutional rights. This is just ignorance, but without it one is left with the sobering conclusion that our government DID have the means to prevent 9/11, but simply failed to do so. And most people won’t let their minds go there. But that conclusion is incredibly obvious, from the myriad warnings that the Justice Department got prior to the attacks, to the PDB that was delivered to the “Western Whitehouse” while Dim Son was on his first month-long vacation, there were plenty of people that knew something was up. We know of no warnings to airlines or chemical plants or nuclear plants for heightened alertness, no directives coming down from Ashcroft or Rice to gather what we know about Al Qaeda agents in this country, no meetings of Cheney’s anti-terrorism taskforce before 9/11/2001. And when you think of the previously vast and scary surveillance which was already legal under FISA: all foreign-to-domestic conversations could be monitored, with up to 36 hours to obtain a warrant post facto, with only the approval of a few judges on a completely secret court with no other oversight . . . with tools like that, it is hard to understand how the Cheney administration felt the need to break the FISA law continuously since 2001, or how they could possibly need LESS constraints on their surveillance.

Sixth, implicit in his argument is that a more surveilled society is a safer one. Quite apart from the observation that even while the Cheney administration has been stripping us of our constitutional rights they have simultaneously been fearmongering us about what great danger we are in from being attacked again by “shadowy islamofascists”, these kinds of unfettered invasions of our privacy make us less safe in numerous ways. For example, it is easy to prove with a simple mathematical model that trying to data-mine a large population for a small sub-population (potential terrorists) creates many more false positives than the system can deal with. Chasing down all of these false leads dilutes our criminal justice resources, as is evident in stories that describe the FBI having to investigate thousands of normal American citizens in response to the leads generated by the NSA wiretapping. It also leaves us open to damage from blackmail, because we have politicians in charge of our security measures, politicians on our security committees, politicians making appointments to FISA courts. Now, if those politicians are Republican homophobes, odds are they are having gay sex. If those politicians are Republican family-values sermonizers, odds are they are being diapered and having wild sex with numerous prostitutes. If those politicians are otherwise run-of-the-mill politicians, odds are they are having extramarital sex. And the evidence for all of this career-ending extracurricular activity is being recorded in their phone calls, their emails, their letters, their car trips, their credit card activity. Which leaves every single one of them vulnerable to blackmail by anyone with access to those records. What if the Soviets or the Chinese or the “Islamofascists” get control of someone at the NSA, or someone who takes care of the NSA’s computers? They could get access to very important, damaging, sensitive material, especially from the hypocritical morality-spouting sexual libertines in the GOP. Finally, this surveillance puts us in danger of not being able to change our government when we want to. The beauty of a democratic republic is that if we don’t like the people in the government, we can vote them out. But this unfettered listening-in allows the government to know every move their political opponents are making, and to counter it with foreknowledge. That is a very real danger.

Seventh, about the British. While the British government seems just as pleased as punch to turn London into 1984, there are lots of writings from British citizens who are less sanguine about it. And, let’s not forget that the Irish terrorists were funded in large part by donations from Irish Americans. We should keep that in mind when we get all het up about countries that “support terrorism”. Also, it is instructive that although the danger of Irish terrorism in London seems to have abated, there doesn’t seem to be any hurry to remove the cameras. Though my father’s friend wanted our freedoms to expand and contract in response to the current situation, my fear is that losing freedom is more like a ratchet: that you can give up more and more freedoms to the government, and you will rarely get them back without a real fight.

Unfortunately, all of this is just l’esprit d’escalier that has occurred to me as I’ve been working through his statement since then. I couldn’t think of a respectful, non-confrontational way to answer him at the time, and so kept silent. That was my failure – to let those kinds of bad ideas go unchallenged. His failure is not thinking through the consequences of his beliefs.