Saturday, May 13, 2006

Liberty and Safety

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. " ---Benjamin Franklin

Ever since Leslie Cauley reported in USA TODAY an NSA wiretapping database that keeps and monitors the records of domestic phone calls made by millions of Americans, there has been much talk about the legality of the program, and what this means for privacy and civil liberties of Americans. While I have been unable to read/listen to all the talk, I thought I would weigh-in on this important issue.

It seems that two equally important threads have started over this issue: 1) Is such a program by the NSA illegal? And if so, why are we not calling for President Bush's impeachment? and 2) What does surveillance of Americans mean for our privacy and civil liberties?

I'll say that I am not a lawyer, but this program seems highly suspect as to its legality. Without a warrant to investigate a citizen of the United States, I do not see how any law enforcement, intelligence, or government agency of any sort can search, wiretap, or obtain any information about citizens. And if this program is illegal, I am deeply concerned with what this could mean for the future of the Republic, especially if the President is not held responsible.

As for privacy, I have this oddly disconcerting thought - I was not surprised by the revelation that the NSA is listening to my calls because I already figured they were intercepting my communications. Yes, it scares me that I had already resigned myself to this reality, and without thoroughly considering the consequences. The truth is, I do not know the consequences, but I do know they could be heavy, and that spying on citizens is a serious subject. I do believe there is an important link between privacy and freedom - how can one be free if she is not allowed to have a domain of autonomy independent from the watchful eye of the government? Yet, at the same time I figure, why am I so worried, I am a law-abiding citizen, they can't charge me with anything, and I still have the courts right? I already realize that public space is incredibly not private, so why not have the cameras, satellites, and computers monitor everyone and find the bad guys for my protection? I'd say there is surely an argument for safety, protection, and security, but at what price? At what point does the government stop monitoring its citizens for their own protection, and start monitoring them for its own protection??? It is exactly this dilemma that can separate a democratic state from an authoritarian one, and I am not sure I am willing to take that risk. Which is why I refer to the Ben Franklin quote above. How much liberty are we willing to risk for safety? At what point do we realize that freedom comes with inherent risks and we must live with those risks?