Terms of Engagement

The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

In the first half of the nineteenth century, July 4 was typically celebrated with an oration — above all in New England, the cradle and battlefield of the American Revolution. The great orators of the North, including Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and John Quincy Adams, each delivered many such addresses. The speaker was expected to read the Declaration of Independence as a reminder to his audience of the sacred principles upon which the Republic had been founded, to recall in shamelessly purple language the heroism and sacrifice of an earlier generation, and then, if so inclined, to descant upon the great issue of the day — slavery, or federalism, or relations with the European powers. I will spare you the first two elements and proceed directly to the last:

The American people have learned in recent weeks that their government has been engaged in a vast surveillance effort of which they knew nothing. The revelations of spying by the National Security Agency have provoked outrage, and bitter mockery, not from the enemies of President Barack Obama, in whom disingenuous shock has become an ingrained reflex, but from his allies — from Democratic legislators, liberal activists, and European leaders and intellectuals.

The president has sought to assure the American people that the programs are not directed against them, and that intelligence agencies will not be able to listen to their phone calls or read their emails. He and other officials have also observed that both the U.S. Congress and a special federal court known as the FISA court oversee the programs, and prevent abuses. No abuses, in fact, have been reported. But for passionate defenders of liberty — one of the "unalienable rights" which, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed to the world, governments are established to safeguard — the sweeping collection of "metadata" in the United States and of actual communications abroad is incompatible with democracy. The abuse is the act itself.

But we do not live in Jefferson’s world. Virtually all developed democracies have intelligence agencies; all spy on one another. We accept inroads on our liberty in the name of many goods — security, convenience, and above all the pursuit of happiness. Our innocence in such matters has been fatally compromised. It is hyperbolic, and even hysterical, to say, as Glenn Greenwald has, that the United States has a secret plan "to destroy privacy and anonymity not just in the United States but around the world." It is equally excessive to lionize Edward Snowden, the former NSA contract employee who exposed the programs, as a heroic defender of democracy in the face of authoritarian menace. Surveillance, even on a giant scale, is not conspiracy, or murder.

What Snowden revealed must be fixed, rather than abolished. And it can be. Among other things, Obama can, as Jeffrey Rosen recently suggested, publish the secret memos that justify the programs, fix legal doctrines that offer the state too much scope for information-gathering, and stop targeting so many leakers for criminal prosecution. He must also bring more transparency to the decisions of the FISA courts. Democracies must be able not only to have secrets, but even to collect secrets. But they must do so with, to use another phrase from Jefferson, the consent of the governed.

And yet, in conceding this, another, perhaps deeper, discomfort remains. The United States has erected this colossal machinery of information-gathering for one overwhelming reason — to stop terrorism. In the name of fighting terrorism it has launched hundreds of drone strikes, shrouding that program in secrecy as well; preserved the prison at Guantanamo, holding prisoners with no prospect of trial and trying others in a military tribunal; converted the CIA into a paramilitary organ; and hounded journalists for publishing secrets. All of these policies have been promulgated by a president who was a scholar of constitutional law — because the overwhelming fear of another terrorist attack has made what once might have felt repugnant to him seem necessary.

Fear has become America’s permanent state — and fear of fear. Thomas Friedman argued in the New York Times that it is best to accept the surveillance program as it is because another terrorist incident would make the American people demand much graver violations of liberty and privacy in the name of security. We are, that is, only one incident away from Glenn Greenwald’s nightmares. But perhaps that’s not so. Government officials wildly overreacted to the Boston Marathon bombing by locking down the metropolitan area; but the citizens themselves never lost their composure. Are Americans elsewhere more frightened than they are in Boston?

Barack Obama once promised to end "the color-coded politics of fear." He has jettisoned the color code, but he has made few inroads on the fear. The very fact that this civil libertarian president has approved so many onerous programs — that he has acknowledged their necessity — isn’t necessarily a sign to Americans of how very great is the threat that faces them. Perhaps it’s a sign that Obama knows that his opponents would try to whip up a national outbreak of hysteria should a major attack occur on his watch. And so he caters to that fear, and hereby helps keep it alive.

Democracies, precisely because they rely upon the consent of the governed, must forever be turning to the people to ask them to weigh against one another those goods which they wish the state to provide. How many guns against how much butter? How much regulation against how much untrammeled enterprise? How much liberty against how much security? And yet this public exercise becomes an empty ritual when the weight on one side of the scale is deemed infinite. This is true whether we call that weight "the free market" or "stopping terrorism." These are goods, but they are limited goods. George W. Bush went to war in Iraq in the name of counterterrorism; consider the staggering costs of that venture.

Barack Obama wants — desperately — to return America’s attention to building prosperity at home. But what has he done — and what political risk has he incurred — to minimize the national preoccupation with "another attack"? He often seems like a prisoner of the office. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to argue that with the rise of the "national security state" in the years after World War II, every president began his day with a terrifying intelligence briefing which left no doubt that his great responsibility was to protect the American people from danger, not to promote their welfare. That, too, is a balance — a balance gone terribly awry. Perhaps Obama should occasionally let the Department of Education deliver the President’s Daily Briefing. He needs to remind himself — and us — of why he is there.

Despite the Orwellian fear-mongering, the United States is less likely than almost any of the other democracies to fall prey to an overweening, all-pervasive state. Jefferson’s heritage is very much alive: Americans have distrust of the state deep in their blood. But America’s geographical remove, its long generations of safety between two oceans, accustomed its citizens to a degree of physical security unimaginable elsewhere; and this, in turn, accentuated the national sense of anxiety over the global threat of communism, and then the fear and the fury which came with the attacks of 9/11. These were, and are, real dangers; they justify some sacrifice of our liberty, or at least of our privacy; but they are finite. Terrorism does not threaten America’s future, or its institutions. If this president is to be remembered by history the way he wishes to be, he must begin reducing that threat to its true dimensions.