Monday, March 24, 2014

NSA and the Matter of Truths, Lies and Exaggerations

In a few days I will be hosting a discussion for the Boston Area Philosophy Discussions group called Ethical Empowerment: Reflections on the NSA Scandal and so I got to thinking about what I really think about this fascinating mess. And I rather quickly formed a view about the truths that the scandal has highlighted, but also about the lies and distortions and/or exaggerations that come from both sides. Here are two indisputable truths: The vast majority of Americans care deeply about their personal liberties and among these are rights to privacy and the freedom to use the telephone or to transmit messages without Big Brother or, perhaps, a government—and perhaps this means any government, that is a Big Brother wannabe. Lord Acton was certainly correct when he said that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Truth #1: privacy is a huge concern.

However, the other indisputable truth is that the right to privacy can be trumped when the threat to national security is such that it undermines our survival or poses a legitimate threat to the well being of the nation or its citizens. But what is the criteria for weighing threats to national security? It seems to me that if it were not for the outrageous lies and fabrications perpetrated by the U.S. government or its spokespersons, then we would not see the rampant mistrust of the government that we have today. If we trusted the government, then when it states that something is being done for reasons of national security we could at least believe it. Unfortunately, however, "national security" has been bandied about so freely and has become so inflated that it no longer holds any currency. Some files relating to the JFK assassination are still marked top secret or documents that are released are blacked out; Kennedy was murdered over 50 years ago and if there is anything about it that is still kept from the public because of "national security" it is a bald faced lie and a transparent absurdity; yet, many people buy it. When it comes to claims about "national security" we should perhaps always question whether the need for secrecy is more CYA than CIA, i.e. someone's ass needs protection. Truth #2: national security is a legitimate concern; it too is hugely important. But an equally large concern is the power lust that all too easily affixes the label of "national security in such a manner that our national security is—ironically, unduly compromised.

My simple point here is that privacy and national security, clearly, are both extremely important issues that most Americans care about deeply. But exaggerating or distorting the truth is the best means of sabotaging both values. The national security freaks who, it would seem, care little about liberty other than in terms of strong military posture do much harm—as we have seen with devastating effect in the lies, misinformation or exaggeration over Saddam Hussein's alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. And so national security was fed and stoked until the truth no longer mattered. And the same—actually much worse in terms of the pure number of those maimed and killed, can be said about American involvement in the Vietnam War.

But there are, as is almost always the case, two sides to a controversy. It is also possible to exaggerate the claim that the government exaggerates the need for national security in many cases. From my perspective, it seems to me that a defense of what the NSA was doing with respect to its electronic surveillance on American citizens can only be done with great exaggeration and hyperbole. The phenomenon of seeing George Orwell's 1984 flying off the shelves is a beautiful statement of the lasting function of a great philosophical novel. Before we descend along the ever-widening path of surrendering our liberties we had better check over-exaggeration and scare tactics, as they can truly be our greatest threat. But I am reminded of the criticisms that some people have concerning outdoor cameras on busy streets. I do not understand or feel any sacrifice of my freedom if in a public place cameras watch so that a rapist or a Marathon bomber might be caught. In our complicated and dangerous world, I wish that those who protest the loss of privacy in innocuous circumstances, when it is done to protect the public without any real and genuine loss of freedom, would just get real for once. In reality, the cameras are a great advance of freedom because improvements in the safety and well being of the public are surely an investment made on behalf of liberty that is paid with an insignificant token of privacy.