The Founding Father with the most future-minded street cred explains why every American should be afraid of a secret data-mining agency.
Courteous reader, allow me to pose a question: What good is Freedom if, in order to protect said Freedom, we must destroy it?
Mr. Obama himself, duly elected President of these United States, scoffed during his first Inaugural Address at the notion that Freedom must ever be traded for Safety, saying, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” But that fine speech is five years past, and alas, it is now an Unavoidable Conclusion that the President & his Administration have continued the work of his Predecessor, Mr. Bush, in allowing our National Security Agency to spend their days devouring tremendous portions of our telephone & computer records under terms of the greatest secrecy. Who you have spoken to, and when, and for how long—all such things are now laid bare to Agents of Government. As may be, too, what sorts of documents we seek to read & view & research; we cannot say for certain, as such details remain shrouded in darkness.
We are told these Examinations of our most routine yet personal affairs are of noble purpose; that they will inform the Authorities in the prevention of wanton violence & terror. And yet I must point out a Simple Truth: that employing a fellow American to peer into your privy while you evacuate your bowels secures you neither Safety nor Happiness, it secures you only a Neighbor who knows the manner in which you wipe your arse.
Gentle reader, upon hearing of the current state of affairs, a question may spring to your lips: What does this matter? If you do not plot against your State or Fellow Man, what care you who knows your words & habits? If you frequent The Blue Anchor rather than Old City Tavern, does it matter who sees you come and go, so long as your business is pure? To be sure, such questions are as seductive as the barmaid who wonders whether I would like another ale (I would). But they mislead us (as indeed might that very ale)—for in this Brave New World where all citizens hold, in the palm of our hands, a wondrous device that grants us the Earth-spanning power of a global Post Office, Library & Town Square wherein to satiate our every curiosity & whim in but an instant, it is impossible to deny that we all, every one, may quickly be damned as potential traitors for the company we keep.
You see, in Days Now Gone, all men & women, even the most worldly among us, lived most our lives in our own cities, in our own homes, at a vast distance from the rest of Humanity. For one person to know all other people was a Rarity indeed, given to precious few, though my Grandfather was fond of claiming that the old Lord Chancellor of England, the esteemed Sir Francis Bacon, was so Well-Met that no subject of the crown stood removed from him by more than six introductions. Today, though, we are a great Web of Connections; through the startling mechanisms of the Face Book & the Instagram, every American sits as close to the entire world as to the next stool at the tavern. But if I hoist a tankard with that fellow on the next stool, and that fellow be of foul mind and deed, am I to be under suspicion for his deeds as well, merely by virtue of sharing a place at the tavern with him? The idea is foolishness; yet this is what we entertain when we cast nets such as the National Security Agency has cast.
To wit: Let us suppose, as we well might, that a colleague has long since Befriended you on the Face Book, & further that he has also Befriended his mother’s cousins—fully unaware that one of them lives a Secret Life of criminal enterprise. Unbeknownst to you, you are now yourself, in the eyes of the Watchers, part of a suspect web, your own actions and business deemed game to be peered at from afar in case you, too, might one day be guilty of some Crime. And in such light, your true and innocent behaviors can easily be questioned and misconstrued. You called a certain Medical Specialist—why? You sought to plan a route of travel from a particular church to an airplane terminal—why?
We may be Innocent until Proven Guilty, but if a man is not treated as an Innocent, then what good is Innocence under the law? And indeed, watching all men & women casts all under the clouds of Suspicion; it renders them Possibly Guilty rather than Presumed Innocent. To be treated as one who is Guilty is not living in a state of Liberty. If one must explain one’s doings, or be constantly fearful that they will be misinterpreted—ever a danger in a world where those with power abuse it without fear of Consequence—then one does not have true Freedom.
Let Mr. Edward Snowden, a former servant of the Central Intelligence Agency, serve as an example for us all in this new Future. It was through his efforts that the American people learned of this intrusive Surveillance Network to which they had not consented; & for this service, Mr. Snowden now finds that his erstwhile masters have named him traitor. Many have called for him to be brought to harsh justice—however perverse the idea may seem that he need be brought to anything beyond a banquet in his honor. It seems the cruelest Irony that the Department of Homeland Security has a slogan: “If you see something, say something.” In witnessing an injustice and speaking out, Mr. Snowden did as instructed. He is now vilified for it. Indeed, his very life may be forfeit for his deeds.
And yet if any one thing be as alarming as this Clandestine Surveillance Program itself, it is the very fact that the American people have been repeatedly instructed of its existence before Mr. Snowden’s sacrifice of self-interest, in Various & Sundry News Reports that did begin a full decade ago and continue through this year just past. This so-called scandal should come as a surprise to none; & yet it seems holding our attention upon matters of national import for more than a fortnight is a feat no longer within our grasp.
A greater Tragedy for Liberty I cannot imagine, & for my part, I say we must not stand for it.
Benjamin Franklin is the former American Postmaster General (1775–1776) and U.S. ambassador to France (1776–1785). His original, much longer draft of this op-ed has been edited by PW contributing writer Eric San Juan.