No Secrets Allowed


It’s been all over the news, and it keeps popping up. It certainly seems to be President Obama’s latest headache, and I would argue for good reason: it seems the NSA, despite agency head Gen. Keith Alexander’s protests to the contrary, has been spying on the American people. Oopsie. At the risk of sounding like one of those crazy, far-out there civil libertarians, I have to ask, did anybody not see this coming, for sheer irony if nothing else?

This follows so closely on the heels of other revelations of domestic spying by our own government that even the New York Times has started to call out the Obama administration. While it’s nice to see that there’s something besides the Justice Department seizing phone records that can ruffle the media, it’s almost gilding the lily at this point. If things follow their usual pattern, there will be an outcry, perhaps even a Congressional investigation which will bog down in cheap political point scoring, and both Republicans and Democrats will focus on getting the upper hand in the next election. It almost feels like déjà vu all over again.

Now it’s well known among magicians that the worst thing you can do in front of an audience is to make a big deal about how unremarkable an object is. “Just an average, every day, perfectly normal handkerchief, nothing unusual or exceptional about it.” This draws suspicion, makes people wonder what’s going on here, there must be something hinkey. This goes to President Obama’s insistence that “Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.” (I have to believe he’s regretting that particular turn of phrase right about now, considering how often it’s been thrown back at him by now.)

The problem is with each new revelation those voices that warn of tyranny sound just a little more like they might be on to something, and I think it’s important to focus on another part of that passage as well: “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems.” Note that’s not one specific administration, one particular party, or one named ideology. The current problems began under the Bush administration, or (arguably) even further back. Government writ large, as an entity, is what the warning cry is against. It is Leviathan the voices cry against, the absolute power that Lord Acton warned corrupts absolutely.

The primary purpose of power, before any other, is to aggregate unto itself more power. That power does not then exist simply to exist – it exists to be used. The more people demand security the more security theater we’ll get, but in addition the more (quietly, behind the scenes, when we’re not looking) we’re going to get the things we didn’t want. Will they ultimately make us safer? Marginally, perhaps. But at what cost?

And if anyone ever says “security at any cost”, think very long and hard about the Faustian bargain they’re proposing. There are times in our recent history (for example the 1950s and the McCarthy hearings as well as the Japanese internment during WWII) when we have pursued “security at any cost”, and it is all too easy to see that we are headed down that road again. With very little effort any person of imagination can conjure scenarios of costs that vastly outweigh the benefits that might accrue, even if we were willing to set aside the cherished institutions and beliefs of our country.

Even those without imagination can conjure a vision of what “security at any cost” would look like, and what the down payment would be. All they have to do is watch the news.



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