“I’ve got nothing to hide. I’m not a criminal. As far as I’m concerned, let them go through my phone records. Let them go through my e-mails. Heck, they can listen to my phone calls if they think it’s necessary. Whatever they have to do to save American lives is fine by me. Whoever they’re looking for, I can tell you this much – it’s not me.”
I’m not quoting anyone in particular. But if you read the above words, I bet you’ve heard something similar from a friend or a family member in the past couple of weeks. Maybe it’s a tad exaggerated; then again, just maybe it has become conventional wisdom.
The President has said that he encourages the American public to have a debate on the tradeoff between privacy and national security. I say fine, let’s have one. (Of course, I would add that we should first master that time-traveling technique that Michael J. Fox used in the Back to the Future movies and go back to, oh I don’t know, how about January 20, 2009. Then we can have that debate as part of a general town meeting entitled “The Change That We’ve Been Waiting For.”) A cynic could say that it is a bit late to talk about privacy versus security when that decision has already been made for us. But I’m trying not to be cynical. And besides, when it comes to important and timeless public policy issues, it is NEVER too late for a society to engage in a robust debate. So please, can we tawk?
Let’s first of all establish what should be obvious. Powerful arguments can be made on both sides of the issue. I view the above (fictional) quotation as representing an irresponsibly one-sided position, but that doesn’t mean that I would advocate placing no restrictions on our privacy in order to improve our national security. I hate terrorism as much as the next American. In fact, I hate violence so much that I don’t even eat animals. As for the scourge of murdering innocent people, that isn’t worthy of the lowest of animals. I encourage our government to take strong measures to fight back at that societal scourge, including considering modest and measured ways of restricting privacy if that is what’s necessary.
However, that is but one side of a VERY complex equation. And much as I got nauseated by the constant pro-war drumbeat from “moderate” talking heads after the Bush Administration began battering Baghdad, I’m getting a tad sick of the constant insensitivity on privacy issues from “moderate” talking heads during these past couple of weeks. In particular, I’m getting sick of the “I trust the government to do what’s best even if I never have a clue what they’re doing” crowd. They act as if the government can never do any wrong; they’re as crazy as the libertarians who think the government can never do any right.
So please allow me to talk a bit on behalf of the right of privacy, if for no other reason than that the conventional wisdom is that only those on the far right and the far left care about it these days. By contrast, those “holy moderates” who we have been told are the nation’s salvation seem to be willing to throw privacy out of the window, stomp on it, and light it on fire, if in so doing they thought they could save a single American life.
My friends, I’m all for saving lives. But honestly, if that value trumped all others to the nth degree, none of us would get behind the wheel of a car, let alone a motorcycle. We’d be using buses, trains, bikes, legs and roller skates, but never a form of transportation that causes 30,000-40,000 Americans needlessly to die every year. Tell me, would you like the government to deprive us of the right to drive a car or motorcycle? Then why don’t you mind if someone suggests that the government use their unilateral judgment, protected by a veil of total secrecy, to strip us of the right to privacy as much as they wish, as long as that would cut into the instances of terrorist attacks?
Perhaps the truth is that we all feel that the right to drive is part of the American way, but the nation is more split when it comes to the right of privacy. Many might see that as a privilege, but not a right. Average Americans – hot dog-eating, beer-drinking, football-loving Americans – drive every day. But what do they need with a right to privacy? We don’t have to worry about the government monitoring our liquor intake, for Prohibition has been gone for decades. We don’t have to worry about the government nailing us for smoking pot, because average Americans don’t smoke pot, they drink! Also, average Americans aren’t gay, so they don’t need to worry about those antiquated sodomy laws that remain on the books. And finally, average Americans don’t place phone calls to the Middle East or for that matter to American Muslims, so they don’t need to worry that their calls are being monitored. In fact, even if their calls were being monitored, they wouldn’t say anything that could possibly get them in trouble.
Just maybe, the truth is that as a general matter, the right to privacy matters to fringe Americans, not “normal” Americans. But the right to drive? That matters to all Americans.
Sorry, but the right to privacy should matter to every American, whether or not they have anything to hide. And I say that in the same way that I believe that the right not to be discriminated against on the matter of race or creed should matter to every American regardless of one’s race or creed. It is in the national interest that we all have a private space where we can behave as we choose beyond the eyes of Big Brother. That private space is the soil in which freedom grows. And what value can be more American than freedom?
The importance of respecting privacy ultimately is not just a matter of freedom, but of justice. Just consider how members of “deviant” groups – whether they are gay, Muslim, “right wing” or “left wing” – are more likely to be targeted by Big Brother than others. If our nation’s history tells us anything, it’s that our government doesn’t handle “deviants” very well. Just remember how the now-beloved Kennedy Administration had MLK Jr.’s hotel room bugged and wiretapped. Of course, MLK wasn’t an “average” American who never stuck his neck out. But personally, I don’t want to live in a country when a saint like King can be expected to be monitored like a criminal, but the apathetic masses rest comfortably in the thought that there is nothing they can do that could possibly concern anyone in Washington.
All of that said, can we at least rejoice about one thing: this national debate has brought progressives and conservatives together for the first time in years. Thank God for that.
And while I’m expressing thanks, thanks on this day to all of the fathers out there who served as my role model in that capacity, and especially that nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn named Julius Bertram Spiro (1912-2002).