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Do Quakers Dream of Electric Sheep? And Other Questions About Domestic Spying
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Last week wasn’t a good week for privacy.

On Wednesday, an NBC report revealed that the Pentagon has been actively spying on “suspicious” anti-war groups—among them, apparently, a group of Floridian Quakers (also known as the more sinister-sounding “Society of Friends"). Two days later, the New York Times unleashed a report of its own, which revealed that the National Security Agency has been monitoring the international emails and phone calls of hundreds, even thousands of Americans at any given time—the result of a secret order signed off by President Bush in 2002. Finally, in the midst of all this, the House of Representatives crawled out of its hole, got scared of its shadow, and crawled back in for several more years of unconstitutional searches and seizures (which is my long, drawn-out way of saying the House voted to renew the Patriot Act; the Senate, however, has yet to do so). Basically, if you ever sat around thinking, “You know what I could use right now? One solid week of government encroachments,” last week was the week you’ve been waiting for.

Still, as I write this, I wonder how much this domestic spying stuff should bug me. I mean, it obviously does bug me. You can probably tell by the tone of my voice here. I’m just saying I wonder sometimes the extent to which it should.

On paper, the measures I mentioned above look dreadful. Some people are going to tell me I’m going overboard by calling all this domestic spying “domestic spying,” because we’re in the middle of a War on Terror, and because sacrifices need to be made in times of war. I see their point. I understand it. I’m not even saying I necessarily disagree with it. But at the same time, I’m not about to take Washington’s assessment of the terrorist threat at face value. True, they’d know better than me how real that threat is. But I don’t expect them to portray it realistically. Politicians tend to play things up for their own benefit. If you listened to Congress during the baseball hearings, you’d think half the kids in this country were packing steroid needles in their lunchboxes. Obviously, that’s not true. So while I understand there are people in this world who want to kill us, and while I understand it’s the government’s job to stop those people from killing our people, that shouldn’t mean Washington gets to watch me like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (or Matthew McConaughey in the lesser Ed TV). Civil liberties still mean something in this country. Or at least they’re supposed to. Even if you think domestic spying is an essential tool in the War on Terror, it’s still domestic spying. I’m not going to argue with anyone who refuses to call it exactly what it is.

That said, I’m trying to be realistic about this. I’m not comfortable with the idea of domestic spying, but I don’t want to wear my discomfort like those special sunglasses that let Rowdy Roddy Piper see the aliens in They Live. All that would accomplish is causing me to live in constant fear. I don’t think the government is watching me take a shower in the morning. I don’t think they’re watching me while I sleep. There’s no reason why anyone would want to watch this stuff. It would be sheer paranoia to think I’m under surveillance in the most personal, intimate sense. (Yet.) The truth is that, yes, on paper, domestic spying bugs me. So do all the enhanced security measures we’ve seen the last few years. But that’s on paper. In reality, I don’t really feel less free.

But by the same token, last week we learned that the president gave the NSA secret permission to monitor international emails and phone calls without warrants. This makes me wonder what secrets we’ll learn next week. Maybe it’ll turn out the feds are reading all emails. And not just the emails of suspected terrorists, but simply all Americans. Maybe it’ll turn out they’re listening to all of our phone calls, too. This kind of surveillance isn’t exactly farfetched in this day and age. Whether it’s happening, I don’t know. And whether it matters, that’s another issue. But the point is, it isn’t farfetched. Not when a government of, for, and by the people is deciding—in secret, no less—how much privacy its people deserve.

So the question is, at what point should this start to bug us? At what point should we feel less free? I’m not the kind of guy who likes it when someone reads over my shoulder. At what point does that go from a personal preference to a matter of principle? At what point are we supposed to say enough is enough—take a hike? Most of us would probably agree there are terrorists living and working amongst us. And most of us would probably prefer the authorities do something to stop those terrorists from blowing up buildings or killing anybody. But where do we draw the line when it comes to intruding upon civil liberties? When do the authorities become a greater threat to our freedoms than the terrorists they’re supposed to stop?

I don’t really know the answer to that question. I know I was setting it up to sound like I knew the answer, but I don’t. And to be quite honest, I’m not sure anybody does. Different people have different standards for what they’re willing to put up with. Most of us probably don’t know what our own standards are. I certainly don’t know mine. Even if I did, I doubt I’d be at the point of wanting to deal with them. I’d rather criticize the state of things from the comfort of my chair than get up and do something. I’m a cynic; that’s what cynics do. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” I don’t like what I see when Washington spies on people. I don’t like how the Patriot Act dumps a giant bucket of bodily fluids all over Fourth Amendment search and seizure protections. But I certainly don’t feel like I’m suffering at the moment. I may be annoyed, but I’m not really suffering. At least not that I know of. (Yet.)

When I look at my life, I see that most of the things that’ve happened since 9/11 haven’t really affected me. I haven’t been victimized by terror. I haven’t lost anyone to terror. I don’t know any soldiers. And the biggest intrusions of privacy have come at the airport, where they’ve busted the locks off my luggage and stopped an inch short of shoving a metal detector up my butt. All things considered, I’ve had it pretty good. If I didn’t watch the news, I probably wouldn’t know the War on Terror was happening to begin with.

But for me, the biggest intrusions aren’t physical. They’re mental. They’re the words that I’m not supposed to write. Whenever I bash the Patriot Act in one of my columns, I get letters from people saying I have nothing to fear if I have nothing to hide. To me, this is like the people of Salem telling 17th Century women: “Don’t worry. If you aren’t a witch, you’ll drown in this water.” The fact is, I don’t know if I’m hiding something at this point. I don’t know if I should be living in fear. Maybe bashing the Patriot Act will come back and haunt me someday. Maybe it’ll keep me from getting on a plane. I don’t know. The rules keep changing, and we don’t find out until afterwards.

I’d like to believe I’m just some drunken halfwit with a typewriter living in Philly. But Ben Franklin was just some drunken halfwit with a typewriter living in Philly, too, and I’ll be damned if the Brits didn’t think he was a terrorist threat. (I realize Ben Franklin may not have owned a typewriter. The analogy works, though. I don’t own one, either.) The point is, realistically, my little weekly column here shouldn’t be enough to get me in trouble with the feds someday. But realistically, being an anti-war Quaker shouldn’t be enough to get you on a Pentagon watch list—yet, apparently, now it is. This is the climate that domestic spying creates. Its ill effects run deeper than invasions of privacy, because after a while it starts to invade your thoughts. It makes you question if it’s safe to have your opinions. Or more importantly, it makes you question whether it’s safe to share them. In a country that values free speech, this isn’t good.

I’m a reasonable guy. I can see supporting something like the Patriot Act if you think it makes us safer. I don’t consider that an unreasonable position. But what I do consider unreasonable is the assumption that always seems to come along with it—this idea that anyone who opposes such measures has something to hide or has it out for America. When you make that assumption, you create a test that someone with a different opinion can’t possibly pass. What’s more, you do it with law enforcement and the world’s largest army on your side. This is pretty un-American, if you ask me.

If I had to decide where enough is enough, this is probably where I’d start.

Jonathan David Morris is the author of Versus Nurture. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/readjdm.

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