As the national discussion about the NSA's secret domestic spying program rolls along, revelation has given way to a vast splintering of argument. By that I mean, the shock of the discovery has since devolved into various discussions about whether the program was needed, what checks and balances oversee it, and how effective it has been. Case in point, the NSA sent Keith Alexander to the Hill with claims that fifty terrorist plots have been thwarted by the program, arguing that keeping Americans safe and alive is all the justification needed for such an endeavor. As some have noted, this is a clear attempt to shift the argument from one of principal to an actuarial one.
Alexander and other witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee made sure to highlight key details of these foiled attacks. Understandably so: The more we focus on the program's successes, the less harshly we might be inclined to judge its alleged excesses. But what exactly is the tradeoff being made here, and how do these revelations address concerns about the potential for NSA over-spying?
That is indeed the question, is it not? Particularly in light of President Obama's assertion that any over-spying in question would be deemed illegal by the government. The same government, mind you, that is committing the illegal acts themselves under the purview of a secretive agency, discussed in secretive committees, and codified by a secretive court. That's the kind of oversight one might call Stalin-esque. As the National Journal rightly continues:
That any abuse of the system would be treated after the fact as a crime doesn't do anything to assuage Americans worrying that the crime is possible in the first place. It's also not outrageous to say, as my colleague Conor Friedersdorf does, that the tradeoff we've made between liberty and security is out of balance, and that maybe we've let our fear of terrorism get the better of us.
Except that statement is lacking. We're still functioning on a balance sheet, where the concern is how much
freedom we're abdicating for security, rather than if
we're abdicating any at all. It's a losing argument that leaves the tyrannical door open to feature creep, secrecy without oversight, and a patient stalking of public apathy. The fact of the matter is that the basic concepts of freedom cannot be done half way. This isn't a call for anarchy. We do have certain fundamental rights codified by one of the most ingenious documents ever devised and any creep against them is an afront to what generations long past did for us today.
I would argue that what's needed, instead of the wishy washy arguments for the balance sheet, is for a more frank, stark, and even frightening position to be taken. One of the most under-quoted lines from Thomas Jefferson is:
"Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual."
Were there a more apt counter-example of Jefferson's concept of liberty than the NSA's domestic spying program, it would involve actual weaponry. His words come from a time when our leaders were brave. They say, essentially, that no quarter will be given to the shaving of liberty under guise of legal justification. I would add to Jefferson's quotation only that the limits of justification should also be ignored.
So, with that, I would suggest the more extreme position we should all be taking is simply that we're willing to accept fear, injury, and even death at the hands of enemies in exchange for the return of our freedom. While I happen to think the threat of international terrorism is real but overblown, I would be willing to accept that same trade were it not
overblown. I'm willing to state for the record that it is not only my life I'm willing to trade for freedom from intrusive government, but on principal I would have to accept the loss of safety to my family's lives, my friend's lives, and all of yours as well. "Give me liberty of give me death", as Patrick Henry famously said, but it apparently needs to be repeated. This isn't some silly call to armed revolution, of course, only a willingness, nay, an eagerness to prefer dangerous liberty over safety in the arms of government intrusion.