Most media polls indicate that Americans favor civil liberties over security, but the evidence does not bear this out. “Freedom isn’t free” has become a slogan, or mantra, with little thought behind it. Freedom may not be free, but it is certainly cheap. Why else would we so readily surrender it to a government that tells us it needs to surveil our electronic communications “just in case” we’re doing something illegal?
Americans have long prized economic freedom over personal and political freedom. The evidence: Pass a law that allows the FBI to secretly investigate one’s reading habits at the public library, and the citizenry shrugs. But should gas prices rise a nickel in a week, there is hell to pay. The moral: Keep taxes and gas prices low, and everything else — including the Constitution — is negotiable.
Consider: The National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama a couple of years back, empowers the military — on American soil — to seize and indefinitely detain any American suspected of terrorist activity. No probable cause, much less proof, is required. No access to a lawyer can be assumed.
Consider: Police departments nationwide are increasingly tracking cellphones on a routine basis, with little or no court oversight.
Consider: Until the Supreme Court acted in opposition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was routinely placing GPS devices on the automobiles of private citizens — without a warrant.
Consider: In New York City, the “stop and frisk” program — allowing police to shake down anyone they deem guilty of “furtive movements” — continues unabated because “it works.” (As would shooting furtive movers, but we’re not quite there yet.)
The only thing more remarkable than this corrosion of sacred liberty is the yawning response of Americans. But why should this be a surprise in a country where, at airports, parents look on adoringly as strangers in Transportation Security Administration uniforms run their hands over our children’s bodies?
We have become a nation of suspects. The irony, of course, is that the most powerful country on earth is also the most paranoid. Enter Edward Snowden.
This former National Security Agency employee — now under the protection of Russia, of all places — did the following: He told Americans that their government was secretly monitoring their email and telephone traffic. One would expect this to be one issue uniting both the “question authority” liberals and the “government is the problem” conservatives. And it very well might have, had the government not directed the citizenry to think of Snowden not as the whistleblower he is, but rather as a traitor.
What’s the public to do if it has never learned to think for itself but rather to live by every word that comes out of the mouth of the executive branch?
The answer: It assents and decides that, yes, Snowden must be a traitor because the White House tells me so. But nothing he made public resulted in a single death, nor did it put anyone in harm’s way. His real crime wasn’t espionage. Rather, he embarrassed the government, and for this he has been targeted with a crime, treason, that opens the door to the death penalty.
It is easy to assert that all this started with the late, unlamented George W. Bush; but such a hasty conclusion is for amnesiacs. The pitiful truth is that in America — except in times of war, when we are strangely united — it has long been a case of every man for himself, which by default makes the other guy the suspect. The government has directed that we remain vigilant and watch one another, while it in turn watches all of us.
And this is the problem: the knee-jerk willingness to comply — even though our four-year-olds are not a threat to the airlines; our telephone calls are private communications; and the military in a democracy is not supposed to function as a domestic police force. We are not the enemy, but government has told us that we are — and we acquiesce, having forgotten that, as Mark Twain once told us, in a republic, the government’s “function is to obey orders, not originate them.”
Robert Klose teaches at UMA-Bangor. He is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association award for opinion writing and the author of “The Three-Legged Woman and Other Excursions in Teaching.”