Here's my latest Sunday column in our local newspaper:
I had my doubts when they dubbed it “The Patriot Act.” Like Bush’s “Clear Skies Act,” which gutted environmental regulations, the title shouted loudly Orwellian. Or Luntzian. I found it disquieting, and not a little sinister.
So now we’re facing what we’ve preferred to ignore since Congress retroactively legitimized GWB’s extra-legal data mining after 9/11: the government is reading our emails, tracking our internet wanderings and credit card usage, noting whom we call. Are we surprised? For that matter, is it clearly wrong? Depends, I guess, on who’s doing the snooping. Nothing could have been more “patriotic” when it was George Bush, right? But Barack Obama? Horreur noir! Or vice versa. Look who’s discovered his outrage in Congress: a guy who helped write the “Patriot” act. Not: several Congressional liberals. Non-congressional screamer, shocked like Louis Renault: Bill O’Reilly, startled awake to the possibility, twelve years after the fact, that a president might abuse power.
To those firing off letters of just-found fury, I’d float a reminder that the rules were written in 2001, got bipartisan (remember that word?) support, and were carried out (to the extent that we know) as vigorously by our previous president as by our current one. Ask yourselves: what’s different now?
After the trauma of 9/11 we acquiesced, as color-coded terror alerts flashed aplenty, to giving up a swath of privacy in exchange for perceived safety. But was there ever thoughtful, dispassionate debate over what amount, and for what measure of protection? Like complete freedom, perfect safety is an illusion. Did we cede too much, for an impossibility? When it comes to covert surveillance, do “checks and balances” even have meaning? Now, finally, ought the questions be asked? Surely so; but where will we find the answers?
Much as I distrusted the name given to the Act, because, reminiscent of Politburo double-speak, “Patriot” has been a Foxopalinesque bludgeon since the attacks, I understand that in these times, to carry out its mandate of safeguarding us, our government needs new and wide-ranging tools. It’s the quintessential quandary of free society: whether looking for leaks by reading emails of reporters, or dissecting data using triggers designed to find bad guys, where’s the balance point between protection and oppression? If it moves left or right along that spectrum depending on the political persuasions of the speaker and who’s doing the gathering, I’d guess we all agree there’s a line out there somewhere; and that it lies, questionably discoverable, in that murky place between wild-west free-for-all and government control of everything. And whereas the legalities are fuzzy, awaiting clarification even now, and the court that approves clandestine data gathering does so in secrecy, there is at least a nod to bridling executive power by keeping it within the law (written, albeit, amidst a panic attack). We can only assume it works as intended, because, by legislative design, we really have no idea.
I publish a couple of blogs. With a click or two, I can tell which articles visitors read, whence they came and where they went next. I know their IP address, can even see a satellite map of their general location. So easily obtained are those data, I bet government agencies, with their superspy machinery, can tell who had what for lunch and when they last changed their underwear. Anyhow, it’s happened several times that I’ve noticed Homeland Security dropping in. I can’t tell if it’s because of a word or phrase I used, or because, like you, they just enjoy my writing and learning new things to tell their friends. My reaction is surprisingly subdued. For one thing, there’ve been no knocks on my door, nor strange sounds on my phone, nothing to suggest I’ve caused liberty bells to ring off the hook. On some level, it’s amusing. They’re not even hiding it, after all. That black SUV over there? Probably a meter reader.
You can’t give power to a president from one party and go all high dudgeon when another uses it, too. The question isn’t whether President Obama is following the law; it’s whether the law, written in the wreckage of the towers, is appropriately placed between prevention and intrusion. No matter where the line is drawn, we’ll be giving up something. Maybe it’s time to reconsider what we disregarded then, when being fed fear, incessantly, from without and from within; and fully to learn what’s being done in our name. If it’s necessary, shouldn’t we be able to handle it?