Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why Government Surveillance is so Dangerous. 

In the copious discussions of government snooping into our phone calls and into many other bits of information about each of us, the issue of privacy is always central. The critics of government surveillance say that we do not want the government to violate our privacy. But, personally, I do not care whether the government knows what I buy where, or what books I read. My political persuasions are there for everybody to see who reads my books or blogs. By itself, the government knowing many facts about myself is of little interest.

What worries me is what the government is going to do with all this information. It may be that I worry about that because I grew up in a totalitarian country where the government used the then much more limited information it had to arrest people at will and make them disappear in concentration camps, in underground weapons factories, or to kill them. The knowledge governments collect about its citizens becomes deadly when it is used to arrest, torture, and kill citizens.

A friend of mine tells me this story: “When I visited Argentina not too long ago, I talked to a family that survived the dictatorship. They saw people all around them being rounded up in the middle of the night and disappearing, never to be heard of again. No one knew what had provoked that mistreatment. So they decided they would not talk about anything political to each other, even in the dark of night, in their bedroom.” They had discovered that a government that has information about you may well be a deadly enemy.

No doubt, some readers will say, that this was true in Nazi Germany, or in the different military dictatorships in Latin America in the 70s and 80s, but it is not relevant here. I find it difficult to share that confidence that our government will not violate individual rights.

The war on terror has brought us dangerously close to a mindset where any violation of the liberties of individuals is justifiable by accusing a person of being a terrorist. Anwar Al Awlaki, an Islamic firebrand, who preached against the US government, although an American citizen, and therefore entitled to trial by a jury of his peers, was murdered by a drone without benefit of a trial. His 16-year-old son was killed by our government in a similar manner. He, too, was a citizen of the United States and entitled to a jury trial. He was a minor. No one had accused him of terrorist activities. His problem was that the CIA believed that he needed to die, and he did.

The so-called war on terror has made us less sensitive to violations of personal rights. Nor is this the first time in our history. Here is a relevant quotation from Wikipedia : “During the McCarthy era [in the early 1950s], thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that would be declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute. “

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were accused of passing nuclear secrets to the USSR, were convicted and executed. The evidence against them looks, at best, shaky today. Our government will kill innocent citizens.

Similar abuses occurred thirty odd years earlier, at the end of World War I. The Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia, a lot of workers in the US arms industry lost their jobs at the end of the war, while a large number of soldiers came home looking for work. The result was a period of labor unrest. Conservative groups, as well as the government, responded with an anti-Communist witch hunt in which many people where unjustly jailed or deported.

The current war on terrorism is just one more period of hysteria in our history when the government as well as private organizations care little for individual liberties and rights. It is not unreasonable to fear another witch hunt.

The Nazis killed millions, the generals and Argentina and Brazil killed thousands. By comparison, our government has been well-behaved, but we have absolutely no guarantee that it will always be equally respectful of our traditional liberties.

A government fixated on more or less imaginary enemies, with little regard for individual liberties, possessing the vast stores of information about each of us, which our government has stored in its massive banks of NSA computers, is a genuine menace. That is why we must resist government surveillance now because it may land us in a Guatanamo-style detention facility tomorrow.