Ostensibly, the American system of executive, judicial and legislative branches of government constitutes a system of checks and balances designed to curtail the pursuit of consolidated power. But we all know better, don’t we? Even before 9/11 and passage of the Patriot Act, Watergate taught us that if we don’t pay strict attention and hold our leaders accountable, then we can expect far worse than the occasional political scandal.
The danger, as George Orwell taught us, is that world government leaders can use the power of their positions to consolidate political power for their own purposes, all the while claiming their actions are for “national security” reasons. The more fascist the leaders, the greater the possibility of subterfuge. As long as there are fortunes to be made, there is also the potential for foreign wars, institutionalized corruption, corporate malfeasance and governmental demagoguery.
Today, under the guise of fighting the straw boogieman known as “terrorism,” issues of personal privacy and national security are colliding head on. It comes down to “trust in government” versus the “right to privacy.” To be honest, I am quite surprised by the outcry over the revelation that the National Security Agency accrues personal information on American citizens. I have assumed since the days of Nixon that the U.S. federal government has files on many American citizens. I don’t just mean the political “hit list,” either.
Unlike many of my liberal peers, I do not hail WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden as heroes. Rather, I see them as emblematic of this ideological battle. Good, bad or ugly, loss of privacy is the price we pay to uphold the government infrastructure we have chosen for our democratic republic.
Under our current system, we elect leaders not only to represent their respective constituencies, but to conduct the daunting tasks of governing a nation of 314 million. We entrust national policy-making to policy makers, law-making to legislators, justice to judges and defense and military decisions to the Pentagon.
Do we really want to change this dynamic and start entrusting these sorts of decisions to civilians? Do you think anyone who has access to classified information should be able to hold a press conference and announce to the world, enemies and allies alike, what they’ve found, just because that information infuriates America’s private citizens? Do you think Assange and Snowden were qualified in matters of state enough to be trusted with their decisions to go public with the information they gleaned?
If so, then why not just let us all decide how to run the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, the Foreign Diplomatic Corps and any of the other various boards, panels, committees and institutions of government?
I am keenly disappointed in the Obama administration. I personally believe that the use of unmanned drones is an abomination and a crime against humanity. I also believe that a policy of imperial hegemony whereby foreign wars are used as blunt instruments to further “the better interests of the United States” is far more dangerous to international security than any isolated acts of terrorism.
But allowing anyone anywhere at anytime to arbitrarily release sensitive information to the world is a very dangerous precedent to set. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t have a political system of representative government and then tell these elected representatives how to run the matters of state. We can’t pretend that unqualified citizens know more about the issues of foreign and domestic policy than our executive, military and legal experts.
And while I am glad the actions of people like Assange and Snowden have prompted the national debate over privacy rights versus security, I would rather have the much larger debate centering on changing the system of American government from one of two monolithic political parties fighting for power to one that allows citizens to share in the administration of our democracy. If WikiLeaks and the NSA debacle spawn such a debate, then people like Assange and Snowden can truly be considered American heroes.
Keith Stover is a freelance writer, artist and musician who lives in Bucksport.