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You Have No Privacy. So What?

We can, and should, be angry to learn that all of our communications and movements have been secretly monitored for years. But we can't escape our own responsibility by claiming to be surprised.
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Behind incidents (that word is radically inadequate) like the revelation that the National Security Agency and the FBI are monitoring essentially all phone calls within, to, and from the United States - for so we must assume - lies a mystery deeper than politics. We could phrase it as a question, but there's a truth that really should just be stated: that the government is an abstraction that we collectively posit and foist on ourselves.

That is not a paranoid or even necessarily a libertarian statement, but simply a factual one. Where does the government or any other institution like, say, Verizon or Google come from, if not from our collective imagination? We ourselves create these entities, in order to watch and control each other and ourselves. We can, and should, be angry to learn that all of our communications and movements have been secretly monitored for years. But we can't escape our own responsibility by claiming to be surprised.

The fundamental choice for which we're responsible, both collectively and individually, is between freedom and security. Both are good things, but they are always in tension with each other, and we can never have either of them completely. Security is important. But what has led to our essentially irreversible loss of freedom is not terrorism, but the fetish that we've chosen to make of security.

There are two ways to look at the recent revelation, and they're irreconcilably incompatible. One is to take the punitive, authoritarian attitude of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, that it's "reprehensible" for journalists to do what journalists do - in this case, to reveal the existence of the secret surveillance. The other is to say, as Al Gore has done, that the surveillance itself is "obscenely outrageous". If you believe in the version of American patriotism that Gore's willingness unhesitatingly to tweet those words exemplifies, then you can see Clapper's statement for the bullying power grab that it is.

One thing to point out, before I get to my main point, is that while it's the Obama administration that has been found out, this is not really about Obama. It's not even about Bush. It's about the state as such and what its prerogatives should and should not be. Therefore, this is not a partisan matter. The political hay that the Republicans might well make will be only another distraction, froth on the surface of the societal sea. The real issue is between the individual - you or me - and whoever it is that's in charge of the state, whatever the name of the party or agency.

For you or me, the unavoidable fact is that we have no privacy anymore, if we ever did. How we respond to that fact defines the extent and quality of our freedom. If we want our response to matter, we need first to get past the understandable queasiness we feel in knowing that all the naughty and embarrassing things we do and say - to do with sex, money, drugs, gossip, and other lowest common denominators of our species - are under surveillance. In these areas we're all vulnerable, so therefore they don't really matter. The same Al Gore who has just given us real leadership provided a beautiful example of how to respond to petty, tawdry intrusions on privacy way back in 1992, when he was running for vice president. In the wake of Bill Clinton's notorious "I didn't inhale" claim, reporters asked Gore if he had ever smoked marijuana. He answered: "Yes. Next question."

The things that do matter in terms of national or world affairs turning out one way or another, and in terms of individual freedom, are, by definition, political things. The fact that they matter is what makes them political. States use external enemies, real and imagined, to suppress political freedom domestically. This is what Norman Mailer meant when he wrote, in 1966, that "So long as there is a cold war, there are no politics of consequence in America." And, not to put too fine a point on it, it's how the threat of terrorism is being used in America today. I hope we never get to the point where any meaningfully political speech or action is defined as terrorism. To claim one's own individual, personal freedom might well be the most political act of all.

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called "intelligent and compelling" by Mohsin Hamid. He is also the author of Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012), which Paul Farmer has praised as "a heartfelt account" that "gives readers an informed perspective on many of the political and social complexities that vex those who seek to make common cause with Haiti." His next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: Facebook: Join his email list here.

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