It’d be nice to report that intelligent public debate about privacy and governmental overreach followed, but it really didn’t. Instead, various existing opinion groups immediately began spinning the news to support their various agendas. For the conservative media, the existence of NSA/PRISM is simply evidence of President Barack Obama’s personal lust for power and totalitarian control. (This is despite the fact that PRISM was initiated before Obama became President, and only represents the widely accepted mandate of the NSA to gather intelligence against potential threats.)
To opinion groups closer to my own heart, represented by voices from various anarchist or Occupy movements, there has at least been a willingness to condemn the entire federal/corporate/military power structure for the NSA’s latest offense against our constitutional right to privacy. But these voices also often seem to miss the larger and more important point: if you care about your personal privacy, and if you don’t like the government snooping into your phone records and Internet activities, you ought to be a pacifist. Our culture of aggressive militarism will never be consistent with a culture of privacy.
How could it ever be? As long as there are highly active, well-funded, enthusiastically staffed military and political organizations battling us around the world, our intelligence agencies will be required to proactively defend against their potential threats. The same people who complain about Obama’s invasion of privacy today would try to impeach him tomorrow if it turned out he had ordered a reduction in intelligence-gathering that led to a terrorist attack. Until we find a way to be at peace on this planet, we will not have a decent level of individual privacy.
Context: just yesterday, as the outrage over the NSA and PRISM was playing out in the press, a US drone quietly killed seven people in Pakistan with an anonymous shot from the sky. Talk about a loss of privacy.
A militarized society — that is, our current society, as supported by most USA voters in every election — must endure a state of permanent paranoia. No past, current or future US President would put the principles of individual privacy above the requirements for national security in a time of war. Neither would any past, current or future Congress or Supreme Court. As long as we are in an explicit or implicit state of war against viable and active enemies, all threats of terror attacks, enemy infiltration and foreign military conspiracy must be taken seriously, because the threats are indeed real.
Therefore, individual privacy is incompatible with war. I find it strange that so many people don’t see this, and I find it really offensive that so many people speak out for privacy today, yet won’t speak out for pacifism, that great forgotten cause, the most important cause for our safety, our privacy, our environment, our economy and our sanity.
This weird impasse reminds me — I’ll mention it once again — of the Vietnam War (which I’ve been on a furious tear reading about it for the past several weeks). The reason we went to war in Vietnam in 1965 is that the voting public loudly demanded it. President Lyndon Johnson did not want to commit ground forces in Vietnam. He and his cabinet searched hard for possible other options, but the fierce public outcry for a strong military policy against international Communism could not be ignored by these pragmatic politicians. As a representative of the citizenry who had voted for him, President Johnson was forced to escalate the Vietnam War.
Today, as in 1965, the government listens to the people, and does what the voters ask. Yesterday Barack Obama said in a press conference that he “welcomes the debate” over privacy, and over NSA activities. I believe he is sincere about this, because I don’t think the war he is fighting as Commander in Chief is his war. It’s our war. We gave it to him, and we vote for it over and over every election day. When are we going to smarten up?
We like to blame our leaders for our flaws because it’s easier than blaming ourselves. By citing Barack Obama (or, for that matter, George W. Bush) as the problem, we avoid the uncomfortable fact that we the people are to blame.
If we can’t speak with a loud, proud and clear voice about the deeper cause of the global disease of deeply-ingrained militarism, we may as well shut up about the symptoms of the disease. Privacy, in wartime? Forget about it. It will never exist. If you want privacy, get on the small but growing bandwagon and declare that you are a pacifist. Then you’ll have some ground to stand on. If you talk about privacy but you still believe in the culture of war, you’re just making noise.
NOTE: the image at the top of the page is not a painting by Willem De Kooning, though it might have been a pretty good one. It’s a screenshot from Google Maps of the NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah, though, strangely, the satellite image only shows some aggressively paved fields of sand and dust. Looks like the NSA Data Center is interested in protecting its privacy, but here’s the full view as Google shows it today: