In the early days of the presidential campaign season of 2008 I remember looking at the available choices and wondering who, among a fairly impressive cast, would be the man or woman who could stimulate a bit of interest – or even enthusiasm – in an electorate exhausted by disappointments.
When it became clear that my Democratic Party was going to be deciding between two historic choices, a young and relatively obscure African-American, and an extremely well-known (if somewhat polarizing) woman, I still refused to be seduced: gender and race were not the criteria upon which to base my choice.
The first American whistleblower was Benjamin Franklin, who in 1773 leaked letters between the then-Governor and Lieutenant Governor of the Massachusetts Colony which purported to reveal policy proposals that would have been unpopular with the colonists. The scandal came to be known as the Hutchinson Letters Affair.
Then, as the process ground on, I began to see that perhaps, after all this time, race had become irrelevant: was it possible? The unknown candidate with the odd name and confusing antecedents was beginning to emerge as a man with a vision, and with the brains to turn that vision into a concrete reality. As weeks turned to months, my interest turned to passion, and I began to talk about change, to argue with reluctant friends and family, to debate, to push – I had found someone who could bring back some of the luster to a tarnished and abused office, someone I could believe in.
Now, six years later, as I see more whistleblowers being prosecuted by this government than by any in our history; as I see journalists intimidated, threatened; I see a heavy curtain of secrecy being drawn over the activities of government – I feel betrayed. History has demonstrated again and again that the short-term benefits of opaque government, of secrecy and suspicion, ultimately pale beside the abiding need for an informed and engaged populace. Had Richard Nixon been able to treat those who fought to expose his abuses of power the way you, Mr President, are treating those today who seek to shine a light behind that curtain, we might never have known about the Enemies List, about the Watergate coverup, the sabotage of the Vietnam peace negotiations — our democracy might have suffered damage from which it would never recover.
What, Mr President, will be your legacy? Will future generations look back on this presidency and mark this as the point at which “an informed electorate” became not the prime mover of government but its enemy, to be suppressed, watched, kept as much in the dark as possible at every historic moment of decision? Will Bradley Manning spend the rest of his life in prison for having helped to bring about the end of a war that was begun in lies and misdirection? Will Edward Snowden become a permanent refugee for finally allowing the American people to begin a debate about practices begun in dark paranoia and the kind of “we know what’s best for you” paternalism that might have been more appropriate to a Stalin, or Rios Montt, or Pinochet?
I hope not.
There’s that word again: “hope”. What do I hope for, now? I hope, Mr President, that you remember that protecting the people by locking them in a box is not the American way, whatever dark moments we may have had in our past. I hope that you realize that just because the technology for control and manipulation exists, it doesn’t have to be used — and if it must be used, that it should be a last resort, a response to clear and present danger, not a knee-jerk reaction to complex realities. I hope you understand that, as foolish as we often are, we are the people, and that the more informed we are, the better equipped we are to face the challenges that confront us both as individuals and as a nation.
At this point, that’s all I can do, but you, Mr President, can do so much more. Rip down that curtain; punish those who break the law, but in a reasoned and proportional way, not as part of a campaign to silence debate, to chill dissent, and to crush the free exchange of knowledge. Let’s end this ugly chapter in our history and get back to work. The future is waiting.
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