Where is the balance between freedom and security? (photo: unknown)
Written by Steve Weissman for Reader Supported News
Ever since we learned that Big Brother is tracing us and everyone with whom we communicate, where, and for how long on both telephone and the Internet, we have heard endlessly that we need to find the proper balance between freedom and security.
To which we should all respond, “Horse feathers!” As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
Forgive a free speech fanatic for telling the truth in public, but as Franklin suggested, balancing is the last thing we need. Once we empower government to balance our freedoms against the threat it poses to them, the national security bureaucrats and their helpers in the police and intelligence services will have won. Game over! We lose yet again and our freedoms become even more marginal to any meaningful exercise of democratic power.
Currently, the feds publicly define our “enemies.” They characterize the nature of “the threat,” real or imagined. And they tell us – now with color codes – how afraid we should be. The whole business is bizarre – and old hat. Here’s just a short list (which I’ve used before and will use again) to kick off the conversation we really need to have:
- After World War I, Postmaster General Mitchell Palmer led an illegal crusade against the “Red Scare,” deporting foreign activists wholesale and without due process.
- For years, a young J. Edgar Hoover secretly defended us from the “Godless Communist Threat to Our American Way of Life,” and later unleashed his Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), in which he sent provocateurs to infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt mostly legal domestic groups ranging from the civil rights and anti-war movements to the Ku Klux Klan.
- For over four decades, the Pentagon and its industrial allies promoted a highly profitable Cold War, along with witch hunting, red-baiting, and anti-union campaigns.
- After 9/11, the Bush-Cheney administration and their oil industry and neocon cheerleaders scared us into the Iraq War, which turned out to be a disaster.
In all these signature episodes, our would-be “protectors” systematically built their power – and often the wealth of their supporters – by tilting the balance toward the security they were selling and against the liberty that would have allowed the rest of us to stop what they were doing. And now a Constitutional law professor in the White House is using new digital technology to unleash what could well become the most sweeping attack on our civil liberties since World War I.
My judgments here are not boilerplate Anarchist or Libertarian theory or even Oliver Stone’s often simplistic revisionist history. They are merely a sober evaluation of the facts that so many of us have come to understand over the years as activists and journalists. Disagree as you will. But, in all fairness, the evidence is more than sufficient to warn us away from ever trusting Big Brother to balance our liberty against whatever security scare those in power are selling.
So, where does that leave us? Free-minded Americans have traditionally trusted in judges to authorize wiretapping or other specific infringement of personal rights in cases where they found “probable cause” that specific individuals were breaking the law. It was an interesting experiment, but the evidence suggests that the eleven special judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have given up guarding our rights and are authorizing surveillance of everyone in reach. Even more troubling, our supposedly independent judges have shown themselves far too willing to allow the executive branch to operate in secret and to avoid judicial oversight simply by refusing to reveal national security secrets.
Historically, Americans have also sought protection through “the free press,” which has failed us miserably. Mainstream papers like The New York Times scramble neurotically between revealing significant secret threats and becoming so psychologically embedded in government that they take on a responsibility to clean up leaked documents to protect what Washington and its allies are doing in the dark. When did that become the media’s job? Let the government guard its secrets within Constitutional bounds, and let the free press stand firmly with whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, Daniel Ellsberg, and [3a]Edward Snowden[3a], the courageous source of the current leaks, in trying to force the transparency that democracy requires. We use to call this division of labor “pluralism,” but the idea seems to have withered away along with our expectation of privacy and unthreatened freedom of association.
One last note: Infomaniacs among our readers will immediately see the similarity between this new data mining scandal and the Total Information Awareness Program that Admiral John Poindexter used to run in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. Congress supposedly stopped that experiment in data mining, but the odds are it continued in the shadows. Isn’t it wonderful being an American and not being able to believe anything that our government officials tell us?
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, “Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold.”
Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.