As (some) Americans debate whether the U.S. government’s massive spying apparatus has overstepped the constitutional limits of police powers, an important element is beginning to draw attention. If citizens believe that the government can see, hear and read everything they communicate, the natural response is to withhold, “self-censorship” as some have called it. In the debate over the feds snooping on their own citizens without probable cause, it’s becoming ever clear that the 4th Amendment holds a critical relationship with the 1st.
George Orwell’s 1984 has been a treasured book since I was a kid, and I think it is an essential treatise on power structures. Like most of Orwell’s work on the subject of state, including the equally brilliant Animal Farm, it speaks less to any individual ideology than it does to the idea that power in and of itself is a corrupting force. The instinct of the powerful is to perpetuate the current structure; this transcends any ideas of principle. Such ideas are often necessary to attaining power (especially through populist means), but they quickly become malleable. They are eventually a mere function of keeping things as they are, and what was once religion soon becomes rhetoric.
Much as I love good old George, I’ll also admit that the term Orwellian has become so overused that it’s now a bit of a cliché - a broad characterization of anything named one thing when it means the approximate opposite; the Patriot Act, the Clear Skies Act, etc. Anyone familiar with the text would know that the idea of someone like me – with the freedom to write pretty much anything I want in this column – claiming to feel as though we’re living a world similar to the one he creates in 1984 would be treading somewhere just north of hyperbole.
That being said, most Americans (including the majority in Washington) seem to be in a dangerous state of passivity when it comes to domestic spying and its infringement on their civil rights. We might be a long way from the idea of 1984’s thought crimes, but considering that Orwell was imagining a world well into the future, I believe that he would see the path we’ve started down as a dark and dangerous one with the potential to move toward his vision at a terrifying speed, especially given the technology now available and becoming more advanced each day.
Technology was at the center of Orwell's idea of state control, a central tool in the ability of the state to maintain such oppressive power in order to discourage dissent. In fact, he imagined devices eerily similar to the Internet and even Skype. What would he have thought in 1947 of a government that had the ability to literally monitor every communication broadcast – public or private? One in which practically every given activity from movement to commerce to vice could not only be monitored, but searched and cataloged with ruthless precision? Most importantly, what would he think of one that did so secretly under the guise of keeping us safe from the enemy?
In a society in which such detailed information can be accessed by the state – what individuals purchase, who they talk to on the phone, what they say in their private emails, where they go, where they’ve been, what websites they’ve visited – how easy would it be to discourage someone from speaking out against those who would use that information against them? You don’t have to take away freedom of speech if you can easily make sure people are too nervous to invoke it.
I’m not saying that the U.S. Government is shaking people down with threats of making public a dumb comment in a 5-year old email or telling the world that they’ve been a bad boy or girl on the Internet, but even the idea that the government can monitor and access such a wide array of personal information should send shivers up the spines of even the most chaste among us. At the core of the most despotic regimes on Earth usually lies a monopoly on access to information, or at least a very uneven playing field.
Plus, once everyone knows or even believes that the state has a permanent eye cast on the activities of every citizen, a whole new kind of power is born. Suddenly the implicit threat of knowing that even if you don’t have anything to hide, a strong case can be made against you by such an all-knowing entity is equally as likely to discourage dissent. Who doubts that experts at the NSA, were they properly motivated and believed themselves to be acting in the interest of national security, do not have the capability to manufacture enough electronic “evidence” to overwhelm the legal defense resources of any one individual. Peaceful subversives like Martin Luther King, Noam Chomsky and even John Lennon were said to be paranoid at the thought that the U.S. Government was keeping a close (and unwarranted) eye on them, though we later found out it was doing just that. Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover had the term "enemy combatant" at his disposal.
Of course we have the constitution, ostensibly to protect us from such warrantless intrusions, but look at how easily that is being subverted. The FISA court, which is supposed to be representing us in such matters, says that the NSA has misled it three times in less than three years. Plus, it’s not like the FISA court is a court in the traditional sense of the term. It isn’t adversarial, as the White House is the only entity that is an actual participant. Their would-be opponents – you and I – not only cannot participate, but we don't even get to know when proceedings are being held in which our interests are being argued for or against.
So while our society might not be anywhere near the nightmare described in Orwell’s book, it is far enough along to wonder whether that is not the inevitable destination. You don’t stop a government once it has reached such a state – you don’t even dream of it. If such a progression is to be reined in, it can only be done so early, and there is indeed reason to question whether we haven’t eclipsed that horizon already.
There is a coalition in Congress, comprised mostly of libertarians and progressives, who are fighting to slow the wheels on this leviathan. But it remains to be seen whether they have the will – and the voter support – to be successful. Meanwhile too many politicians are giddy over the thought of such power, while too many citizens are pacified by the idea that our government would only do these things to keep us safe – the very justification given by the power-hungry: just another freedom we need to sacrifice in order to be safe in this post 9-11 world.
To that, I ask what Americans think would happen if there were another national security disaster, something like a large-scale terrorist attack on the homeland. Look at the broad expansion of state powers that was achieved the last time – before we had today’s intelligence infrastructure and surveillance capabilities. What could they get us to do tomorrow in order to be safe from the terrorists? It’s Ben Franklin not George Orwell who comes to mind at this thought. He said that “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I hope Americans give that some thought in the coming months.
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