The Smoking Crater Theory of Civil Liberties
After 9/11, the U.S. Congress put together a bill called the Patriot Act, a grab bag of goodies the intelligence community had long craved. The intent was to remedy problem areas in the gathering and use of intelligence on our enemies at home and abroad.
To oppose the Patriot Act was, well, unpatriotic, and it passed both houses of Congress rapidly and with little dissent. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law within sixty days of 9/11.
There were definitely problems. Intelligence agencies were “stove piped”—they didn’t share information with one another because they didn’t have the capacity to share information with one another. Even after 9/11, FBI offices around the country were reduced to faxing—remember faxing?—photos of Al Qaeda suspects, because they didn’t even have the capability of sharing photos by any more technologically advanced means.
The Patriot Act, and the super-Patriot Act that followed, engendered huge civil liberties debates in this country. Those debates boiled down to one basic argument: What good are civil liberties if there’s nothing left of your country but a smoking crater?
Fast forward two wars and thirteen years. America now has a war that pretty much all of us can get behind, unlike Iraq, where Saddam Hussein might have been a bastard but for many years he was our bastard, and Afghanistan, where our attempt to move people out of the 12th century has been met with derision, failure, and unnecessary American deaths.
Intriguingly, this time around, there are practically no voices of concern regarding any new governmental intrusion on our civil liberties as America gears up to fight ISIS.
Our attitude this time around is one of weariness instead of alertness.
“Do whatever you have to do,” America is telling its government. “Just take these guys out.”
If the conversations, travel arrangements, banking habits, and social media feeds of average Americans are under more scrutiny by the usual suspects—the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the EIEIO, for all I know—it doesn’t seem as though anyone is particularly bothered.
So what changed?
Thirteen years ago, “social” meant hanging around with your friends and “media” was something you either watched or got your news from.
Today, social media is the means by which most of us stay connected with everyone who currently is or ever has been in our lives, from grade school to the present moment.
The internet has also become ubiquitous in our lives. It wasn’t too many years before 9/11 that many people would not shop online, either because the process was too bulky and annoying or because we simply did not trust the idea of putting credit card data onto a website.
The internet, in the form of social media and online shopping, has essentially robbed Americans of the privacy they once took for granted.
It wouldn’t be hard for a moderately sophisticated hacker to put together a day in the life of just about anyone. How you browsed online. What you said to your friends, either on the phone or in an email. What you bought. What naughty videos you downloaded. And so on.
Information about each of us is bought and sold daily, and we have accepted a previously unimaginable level of intrusiveness in our lives in exchange for the ease and speed that shopping online or using social media offers.
In other words, privacy meant something thirteen years ago.
Today, we don’t have it, and it appears that we don’t miss it all that much.
In one of the recent Jack Reacher novels, author Lee Child observes that if the U.S. government had decreed that all Americans were required to carry devices in their pockets or purses that identified where they were, who they were communicating with, and what they were looking at online, the civil liberties outcry would’ve been enormous. Instead, everybody got a cell phone, and the government was free to snoop as it saw fit.
And that’s where we are today. As we enter this third war in thirteen years, we seem to have no interest at all in a civil liberties debate. Let the government do whatever it needs to do. Let it snoop with impunity if it can find the bad guys that much faster. Don’t bother me—I’m doing Facebook and I’m not caught up.
They used to say that in war, truth is the first casualty.
No longer. Today, the first casualty of war is privacy, but it seems that for most of us, privacy is an acceptable loss.