Kadner: Do you want security or freedom?
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org June 6, 2013 9:32PM
This aerial view shows the NSA's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah, Thursday, June 6, 2013. The government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order, according to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration is defending the National Security Agency's need to collect such records, but critics are calling it a huge over-reach. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Updated: July 8, 2013 6:39AM
The Internal Revenue Service harasses political enemies, the National Security Agency subpoenas millions of telephone records from Verizon, wire service reporters are targeted to discover who leaked government secrets.
You’ve got to wonder how bad things would be if a constitutional law scholar weren’t sitting in the White House.
Any student of history could predict that this sort of thing would happen after the Patriot Act was passed following the 2001 terrorist attacks.
You give a government practically unlimited authority to conduct secret surveillance of civilians and eventually it will use it.
It’s human nature. As England’s Lord Acton once said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Our Founding Fathers knew that and so wrote a Constitution and Bill of Rights in trying to foresee all manner of government abuse, corruption and intimidation.
The U.S. Supreme Court has spent more than two centuries writing opinions that have for the most part broadened civil liberties.
But whenever war has broken out, whenever Americans have become fearful that some enemy (foreign or domestic) threatened their freedom, they have willingly, and often enthusiastically, given up their civil rights.
Whether it was Abraham Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War or the federal government deporting hundreds under the Espionage and Sedition Acts of World War I or putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, it seems our countrymen always have been ready to give up a few hard-won freedoms for some temporary security.
Of course, not all of the current scandals can be attributed to the war on terror. The IRS’ abuse of power in targeting groups association with the Tea Party appears to be an old-fashioned political vendetta.
Every time another abuse of government power turns up, President Barack Obama says he’s outraged, knew nothing about it, will get to the bottom of things.
And each time he sounds more and more like a fellow who simply doesn’t care.
But he isn’t the only one. Back when the Patriot Act passed, most Americans didn’t care about its ramifications.
“Just protect us,” seemed to be the sentiment of the moment. Do whatever it takes.
When people were thrown into prisons without a trial because they were suspected of terrorism, well, they probably deserved what they got.
When prisoners overseas were waterboarded, the government claimed it wasn’t torture, and millions of U.S. citizens nodded in agreement.
The real torture, we all knew, was taking place after our government transported prisoners to foreign countries that had no qualms about doing whatever it takes to get information.
Was information gained?
“Of course,” our government officials said.
And that’s all we cared about. We trusted the government.
Hey, why else would we support a war on a foreign nation because it was amassing weapons of mass destruction? The government said it was true.
Anyone who raised doubts, like the husband of a CIA operative who wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times, was labeled an enemy of the state.
Once you’ve gotten to a place where that kind of decision-making can be ignored, or endorsed, it’s not hard to arrive at the conclusion that it’s all right to have the Central Intelligence Agency use drones to kill people.
They must be bad people or they wouldn’t be targeted, I hear patriotic Americans say.
Oddly, many of these are the same people who relentlessly urge me to criticize Obama for the abuses of the Patriot Act by the U.S. attorney general’s office and the investigations by the IRS.
If foreigners pay a heavy price for our government’s lack of respect for human rights, or some mistakes, that’s OK.
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday that the revelations that the phone records of Verizon customers have been obtained are “disturbing but not surprising.” Durbin has tried to put limits on government surveillance of American citizens since 2005.
The National Security Agency claims that it is not listening to phone calls of Verizon customers or recording them. It’s simply tracking certain telephone numbers to see if they were dialed and, if so, how long the parties involved stayed on the phone.
Why? To protect us from terrorists. To track people who are hatching plots. To round up the cells of terrorists before they can murder innocent Americans.
And don’t we all want that? Isn’t that a worthy goal?
If the bombers of the Boston Marathon had been in contact with others plotting similar crimes, wouldn’t you want to know in advance? Of course.
But therein lies the dilemma. You can’t know for sure. You have to trust the government.
And the government has proven time and again, over more than 200 years, that it cannot be trusted with such unlimited authority.
It requires oversight. And it is the duty of citizens to demand it, even when they feel threatened. Especially when they feel threatened.
When Communists were suspected of conspiring to undermine our country, innocent political activists were targeted in the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s. The FBI wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr. because he was campaigning for civil rights.
I do not blame the intelligence agencies, military officials or government bureaucrats for doing what they are trained to do — follow orders.
That’s why civilians have control of the government.
It is up to us to protect not only our rights but those of our neighbors and, yes, even people living in foreign lands who are targeted for death by our government.
Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.
Ben Franklin said that. He was right.