[I wrote this during Bush’s first term. Considering the recent cases involving reading the government reading email and tracking Internet viewing, I thought it worth a second look.]
“Get back in your car!” came the angry order.
“I live here!” I answered, only to hear the angry order repeated.
I’d just returned from Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house, a bit after 8 p.m., and I was listening the to rest of an NPR story (I can’t get NPR inside my country home). I wasn’t even sure about the source of the order, since no lights were flashing, and I wasn’t entirely sure the truck I saw suddenly swing around belonged to the Sheriff’s department. I certainly couldn’t tell at the time, since the truck was parked at an angle in the nearest lane, lights shining in my face, all I could see. I had tried to get out to explain that all was well.
The eventual terse conversation clarified the officer’s stated position that he didn’t know if I needed roadside assistance (I certainly hope this isn’t his usual roadside manner) and that since he doesn’t know me, he’s safer approaching me (like I’m safe from an unknown driver spinning around and accosting me). I was saved further harassment primarily after pointing out to the officer that I had only been sitting there five minutes or so, as evidenced by my fresh tire tracks--clearly indicating I’d backed into my parking spot intentionally.
Technology probably saved me further difficulties that Thanksgiving evening. The officer twice asked me my name, and certainly he could from there check my story--the phone book would do, but the patrol car laptop would also suffice--as well as checking my registration, insurance, and any possible prior incidents.
But in short, I was accosted in my own driveway, way out in the country, for listening to the radio, and primarily because the officer in question found listening to the radio in a driveway foreign. Hence, I’m even more concerned than before about the surveillance measures the Bush administration has pursued so relentlessly. Will other people’s perception of what is normal and acceptable become, ipso facto, the law?
I fear that’s so. The Bush administration is constructing an information system to combine all available data in one central location. All activities, all purchases, all Internet queries and more will be available without a search warrant. And in charge of this data? None other than John Poindexter, convicted of conspiracy, lying to Congress, defrauding the government, and destroying evidence in the Iran Contra scandal, convictions later overturned during George H’s presidential tenure on the grounds that despite the truth of Poindexter’s testimony, he’d made an immunity deal in return for his testimony.
The information system is nominally a response to the “War against Terrorism,” an extremely unfortunate characterization. Certainly there’s a serious threat that needs serious consideration, but crediting the Bush administration for its response to this threat has serious problems: (1) such a broadly defined “war” will never have an end, leaving every president with broad and ambiguous power to do whatever in the name of national security forever, since such a war can never be declared “over” with certainty; (2) the Bush Administration could have prevented the 9/11 attacks by seriously considering instead of dismissing the Clinton administration’s reports about the growing threat; (3) naming Henry Kissinger, architect of the secret bombings in Cambodia and Laos to lead an investigation into the current administration’s failure to address 9/11 seems to have only one logical reason--Kissinger won’t embarrass the president (and replacing him with Tom Kean, a man with virtually no intelligence experience, underscores that the point of the investigation is to find nothing); (4) while Attorney General John Ashcroft insists the government needs greater powers to protect Americans against terrorists, he also refuses to allow tracking firearms as a violation of Constitutional rights, a bizarre contradiction in priorities (and does anyone really believe that a group of militia folk could hold off a hostile U.S. government with the state of weapons technology today? Should U.S. citizens be allowed to become nuclear powers?).
The truth is that technology will change multiple aspects of American life, and it probably can’t be stopped. Many of the consequences will be wonderful. Eventually, for example, people needing organ transplants will clone their own replacements, solving a current medical crisis. And, the unprecedented access to information by anyone with access to a computer and a modem is certainly beneficial. But this will come with costs. Further, given the current administration’s obvious disdain for Constitutional protections, it’s not hard to imagine that with or without official approval, illegal surveillance may already be in progress. Certainly, legal protections didn’t stop the Nixon administration.
The danger is that anyone in power can force a preconceived view of ethics on the public. There will be no escape, since any book purchase, any email, any documented action or position will be available for review. Given current political strategies of finding whatever fact can be spun and doing so negatively, America may be headed not for an era of truth, but for layers and layers of lies. Further, the electorate seems unconcerned. True, access to information is greater than ever before, but so relatively few people use this power, and even fewer evaluate that information before accepting it. Thus, although the danger from outside U.S. borders is real, the potential danger from the U.S. government is equally real.
And even if not, benignly collected data will always be in jeopardy from an outside hacker.
Consequently, everyone’s freedom--and perhaps life--is potentially in danger in the 21st century from anyone who finds any particular action or thought unsatisfactory--even listening to the radio in one’s own driveway.
George Orwell may have been correct--he just got the year wrong.