Something In the Dark

In light of all the recent revelations about government agencies spying on American citizens — and more importantly, all the government’s prevarications and half-truths about the level of detail and the purposes to which that information is being put — I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up a reasonably surveillance-proof browser on my computer.

Of course, a part of me says “what the hell for?” Spying on me would be a pretty unsatisfying exercise for even the most eager NSA spyhunter: I don’t lie on my income taxes, I never drive over the speed limit; I don’t even split my infinitives or tear the tags off my pillows. We keep hearing the people who support the surveillance programs saying things like “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”  It’s a pretty safe bet that I have nothing to hide: then what am I worried about?

I think perhaps it’s the very fact that I am such a stickler for the rules, that I do try so hard to always behave properly, to do the right thing, that makes this all so unsettling to me. Who hasn’t been in a situation with the bank, or the insurance company, or the IRS, where you suddenly find yourself in an alternate universe where a bizarre and incomprehensible logic prevails? You find an error on a bank statement, or the cable bill, you make a phone call, and suddenly you’re trapped in some kind of game in which all the rules are absolutely secret, known only to your faceless opponents. You’re in violation of a whole boatload of requirements and regulations that you never knew existed, that you were never intended to know existed, and you’re going to have to pay the price. No appeal, no recourse, no exit.

To be fair, we’re told that the spying program has thwarted “dozens” of attacks (Gen. Keith Alexander) and might have prevented the September 11, 2001 attacks has it been in place at the time. Here again, unfortunately, we’re faced with a case of “trust me”. A group of individuals, operating in blackest secrecy, insists that what they’re doing to us is for our own good, but can’t really tell us precisely how, or why, or on what occasions. Like the balaclava-masked terrorists themselves — or a gang of KKK thugs — if what they’re doing is so noble and necessary, why do they hide their faces? Democratic institutions are often based on compromise: if surveillance programs can’t be designed to operate within established constitutional limits, let’s at least provide a system of rules that allow us, the voters, whom these programs are allegedly designed to protect, some role in the process, and some avenue of appeal when we believe that the process is being abused. If we’re so far gone that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, must hide from the people, then I think we’ve already lost the war.

–  In Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel “The Trial”, his protagonist Josef K. finds himself suddenly yanked from his humdrum world and forced to stand trial for a crime that no one will specify, by an authority that refuses to identify itself, before a tribunal of faceless strangers.

–  In the “war on terror”, the US government is able to attack its citizens with documents known as “National Security Letters”, in which the offense is not specified, the authority behind the action is secret, and it’s a federal crime to tell anyone — even a lawyer, even your family — that this is happening to you, or has ever happened.

I imagine Josef K. would find that situation pretty darned easy to recognize.

This, I think, is what worries me. I want to do the right thing, to behave, to follow the rules, but when the rules are hidden, and the right thing cannot even be defined, I get stressed, and confused, and angry. I begin to see the institutions I want to trust, that I want to believe in, turning into faceless monoliths, hooded tribunals circling a table in a darkened room, exerting their will on a populace too powerless — or too emasculated by the fear and ignorance such procedures help engender — to demand justice, or at least a little daylight.

I begin to see the people and organizations that I rely upon to protect me becoming the very enemy that I had hoped they would protect me from.

In England during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there existed an organization called the Star Chamber. This was gathering of men who sat outside government, in secret meetings, operating outside the law, to exercise the will of the king in matters too delicate or too unstable for normal political processes. It was intended as a compromise to protect the nation from revolt and social upheaval, but in many cases the Star Chamber simply devolved into a system for persecuting opponents of the men in power — there were no public hearings, no appeals; cases were tried without witnesses, often without the defendant even knowing that the trial was taking place until punishment reached out of the dark and struck him down.

I am what many would call a “big government” liberal: I believe in the ability of government to improve the lives of its people, through intelligent, enlightened intervention in matters of social change, in health care, in environmental controls, in all of those collective issues that matter so much to us but are beyond our ability, acting individually, to undertake. I can’t guarantee the safety of the water I drink, or the food I eat — that’s a job that requires all of us working collectively. I can’t build a bridge across the creek a mile from my house, not alone: I need my neighbors, my community, my government, to step in and help me.

But when the government begins to act in a way that appears to be completely independent from the people — concealing its actions and its motivations from the people, and in fact begins to treat the people as an enemy that must be watched, and controlled, spied upon and manipulated, even lied to … I worry.

We’re told that our elected representatives in Congress have been privy to what’s happening from the beginning, that they have approved of what the NSA has been doing. The implication there is that, as our proxies, those representatives represent us, that they represent our will in this matter, so if they approve it’s a sign that we approve. Does anyone remember a candidate promising to support secret tribunals and warrantless spying in the last election cycle? I understand that, according to current polling data, a majority of Americans are okay with the surveillance — at least for the moment — but how can we support a program we aren’t supposed to know exists?

And most importantly of all, how can we defend ourselves if we don’t even know we’re being attacked? Who is the enemy? Al Qaida, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Branch Davidians, unhappy right-wingers with a carload of fertilizer — or millions of Gmail and Verizon customers going about their daily lives, unaware that their government believes they may be part of some vast threat? I think there is a difference.

If we willingly accept becoming both victims and criminals in this enterprise, then we may be seeing what has been a magnificent experiment in democracy grinding to an ignoble and grimy end.

Surveillance-proofing my computer? I’ve downloaded the package, but I haven’t installed it. After all, what do I have to hide?

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One thought on “Something In the Dark

  1. After posting this I realized that some people might interpret my intent as anti-government, or anti-Obama — let me make it very clear that I am neither. I do believe, however, that if government believes that the threats that we face as a democracy are too complex, too nuanced, for us as voters and citizens to understand, then I think the obligation is for government to educate us to the point that we can be effective participants in our own security, not to push us out of the way. When someone tells me that I’m too stupid to understand, that I just need to stop asking questions and do as I’m told — well, that gets my back up.

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