A Sense of Proportion

Like many of you, I suspect, I have been closely following the story of government surveillance that has rocked the country, indeed, the world. I am appalled at the revelations, but not surprised. I was just about to leave government service, and give up my top secret clearances, when the Church Committee looked at Project Shamrock (do a Google), and Seymour Hersh, an acquaintance, wrote his groundbreaking piece in the New York Times. Since those days despite shock after shock about the encroachments of government surveillance, and despite claims that these whistle blower revelations compromise national security, all that has really happened is that the surveillance industry has grown and expanded from government agencies to include private contractors. There are now hundreds of thousands of people involved in the security apparat. There is no precedent in history for this depth of penetration into the life of the individual.

Throughout those years from the '70s, and Shamrock until today, it is clear that civil liberties concerning privacy have virtually disappeared. Anyone who doesn't keep in mind that everything they write or say that is digital is susceptible to being recorded by some agency or contractor is not living in the real world.

This is not a world that the Founders, or the Constitution as they understood it, would condone. I think that is irrefutable. But it is what is and, in those terms, the more I think about this, the more cost benefit issues have risen to the fore for me.

The United States tolerates approximately 33,000 gun deaths a year. To give a sense of proportion in just the seven months since December 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 little children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, more people have been killed by guns in the U.S. -- 5,010, 94 of them children as of yesterday -- than Americans were killed in the War in Iraq over 10 years. In those same 10 years over 270,000 Americans killed each other with guns. Surveillance played no role in stopping any of this carnage.

When I look at the Boston bombers I see two very young men, with a grudge, who killed 3 people and injured 264 with homemade bombs, and despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent on surveillance, nobody knew they were planning to do it until it happened. Will anyone know when the next angry young men try to do something similar? I would guess not.

In 9/11, when there was already a highly developed and intrusive surveillance network in place, 19 young non-American men came into the country and killed 2,753 people, and no one knew they were going to do it, until they did it.

So what exactly are the hundreds of billions of dollars, and the sacrifice of our civil liberties providing us? And, and this is the realpolitik question, what does it say about us, that we have no problem with tens of thousands of people being killed by guns, yet a terrorist act that kills hundreds or even several thousand justifies Orwellian surveillance?

I find reconciling those two realities very difficult. I should also note that as I wrote this little essay I kept thinking back to a dinner I had had with Vladimir Posner back in the 1980s at the Writers' Club in Moscow. Those who are old enough will remember Posner on the old Nightline, as the Soviet Union's principal spokesperson on American television explaining Perestroika and Glasnost, the reformist movement that arose and led to the collapse of the USSR.

Sitting in the paneled dining room of the club for Soviet writers and journalists, I asked Posner how censorship worked. "Did each writer or his editor have to submit his work to some bureaucrat," I asked.

"No, he replied," it doesn't work like that. There are censors, but the real constraint is self-censorship."

Why I asked do people self-censor?

"You are so naive, Stephan," he replied. "Your apartment comes from the state. Your job depends on the state. The kind of hospital you get to go to depends on the state. Your kid gets to go to certain schools under the gift of the state. If you write certain things, the state will know it, and you will be punished. You'll lose your apartment. Your kids won't go to that special school that gives them a start in life. So you are careful what you say."

As I wrote this I kept thinking that by writing this essay, with keyword searching IT programs, I would almost certainly draw attention to myself. In doing this there was risk. How would it play out? It made me deeply uncomfortable, not that I was writing this, but that I should have to think about what I am writing, and who might be watching.

Three of my family forebears, signed the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. I am a vet. My father was a vet. All my uncles were vets. My maternal grandfather was a vet, and so were his brothers; and my great grandfather, and his father, and so all the way back to men who were officers and enlisted men in Washington's Army. As I wrote this I wondered what they would think about putting their lives at risk to reach this state.

Is that grandiose? Probably. But there are a lot of search terms in this essay, and the problem is, you never know.