An Open Letter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMr President,

In the early days of the presidential campaign season of 2008 I remember looking at the available choices and wondering who, among a fairly impressive cast, would be the man or woman who could stimulate a bit of interest – or even enthusiasm – in an electorate exhausted by disappointments.

When it became clear that my Democratic Party was going to be deciding between two historic choices, a young and relatively obscure African-American, and an extremely well-known (if somewhat polarizing) woman, I still refused to be seduced: gender and race were not the criteria upon which to base my choice.

Then, as the process ground on, I began to see that perhaps, after all this time, race had become irrelevant: was it possible? The unknown candidate with the odd name and confusing antecedents was beginning to emerge as a man with a vision, and with the brains to turn that vision into a concrete reality. As weeks turned to months, my interest turned to passion, and I began to talk about change, to argue with reluctant friends and family, to debate, to push – I had found someone who could bring back some of the luster to a tarnished and abused office, someone I could believe in.

Now, six years later, as I see more whistleblowers being prosecuted by this government than by any in our history; as I see journalists intimidated, threatened; I see a heavy curtain of secrecy being drawn over the activities of government – I feel betrayed. History has demonstrated again and again that the short-term benefits of opaque government, of secrecy and suspicion, ultimately pale beside the abiding need for an informed and engaged populace. Had Richard Nixon been able to treat those who fought to expose his abuses of power the way you, Mr President, are treating those today who seek to shine a light behind that curtain, we might never have known about the Enemies List, about the Watergate coverup, the sabotage of the Vietnam peace negotiations — our democracy might have suffered damage from which it would never recover.

What, Mr President, will be your legacy? Will future generations look back on this presidency and mark this as the point at which “an informed electorate” became not the prime mover of government but its enemy, to be suppressed, watched, kept as much in the dark as possible at every historic moment of decision? Will Bradley Manning spend the rest of his life in prison for having helped to bring about the end of a war that was begun in lies and misdirection? Will Edward Snowden become a permanent refugee for finally allowing the American people to begin a debate about practices begun in dark paranoia and the kind of “we know what’s best for you” paternalism that might have been more appropriate to a Stalin, or Rios Montt, or Pinochet?

I hope not.

There’s that word again: “hope”. What do I hope for, now? I hope, Mr President, that you remember that protecting the people by locking them in a box is not the American way, whatever dark moments we may have had in our past. I hope that you realize that just because the technology for control and manipulation exists, it doesn’t have to be used — and if it must be used, that it should be a last resort, a response to clear and present danger, not a knee-jerk reaction to complex realities. I hope you understand that, as foolish as we often are, we are the people, and that the more informed we are, the better equipped we are to face the challenges that confront us both as individuals and as a nation.

I hope.

At this point, that’s all I can do, but you, Mr President, can do so much more. Rip down that curtain; punish those who break the law, but in a reasoned and proportional way, not as part of a campaign to silence debate, to chill dissent, and to crush the free exchange of knowledge. Let’s end this ugly chapter in our history and get back to work. The future is waiting.

Thank you,

David Holcomb
Winslow, Arkansas

Something In the Dark

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I know that you know that I know that you know that I know …

In light of all the recent revelations about government agencies spying on American citizens — and more importantly, all the government’s prevarications and half-truths about the level of detail and the purposes to which that information is being put — I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up a reasonably surveillance-proof browser on my computer.

Of course, a part of me says “what the hell for?” Spying on me would be a pretty unsatisfying exercise for even the most eager NSA spyhunter: I don’t lie on my income taxes, I never drive over the speed limit; I don’t even split my infinitives or tear the tags off my pillows. We keep hearing the people who support the surveillance programs saying things like “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”  It’s a pretty safe bet that I have nothing to hide: then what am I worried about?

I think perhaps it’s the very fact that I am such a stickler for the rules, that I do try so hard to always behave properly, to do the right thing, that makes this all so unsettling to me. Who hasn’t been in a situation with the bank, or the insurance company, or the IRS, where you suddenly find yourself in an alternate universe where a bizarre and incomprehensible logic prevails? You find an error on a bank statement, or the cable bill, you make a phone call, and suddenly you’re trapped in some kind of game in which all the rules are absolutely secret, known only to your faceless opponents. You’re in violation of a whole boatload of requirements and regulations that you never knew existed, that you were never intended to know existed, and you’re going to have to pay the price. No appeal, no recourse, no exit.

To be fair, we’re told that the spying program has thwarted “dozens” of attacks (Gen. Keith Alexander) and might have prevented the September 11, 2001 attacks has it been in place at the time. Here again, unfortunately, we’re faced with a case of “trust me”. A group of individuals, operating in blackest secrecy, insists that what they’re doing to us is for our own good, but can’t really tell us precisely how, or why, or on what occasions. Like the balaclava-masked terrorists themselves — or a gang of KKK thugs — if what they’re doing is so noble and necessary, why do they hide their faces? Democratic institutions are often based on compromise: if surveillance programs can’t be designed to operate within established constitutional limits, let’s at least provide a system of rules that allow us, the voters, whom these programs are allegedly designed to protect, some role in the process, and some avenue of appeal when we believe that the process is being abused. If we’re so far gone that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, must hide from the people, then I think we’ve already lost the war.

–  In Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel “The Trial”, his protagonist Josef K. finds himself suddenly yanked from his humdrum world and forced to stand trial for a crime that no one will specify, by an authority that refuses to identify itself, before a tribunal of faceless strangers.

–  In the “war on terror”, the US government is able to attack its citizens with documents known as “National Security Letters”, in which the offense is not specified, the authority behind the action is secret, and it’s a federal crime to tell anyone — even a lawyer, even your family — that this is happening to you, or has ever happened.

I imagine Josef K. would find that situation pretty damned easy to recognize.

This, I think, is what worries me. I want to do the right thing, to behave, to follow the rules, but when the rules are hidden, and the right thing cannot even be defined, I get stressed, and confused, and angry. I begin to see the institutions I want to trust, that I want to believe in, turning into faceless monoliths, hooded tribunals circling a table in a darkened room, exerting their will on a populace too powerless — or too emasculated by the fear and ignorance such procedures help engender — to demand justice, or at least a little daylight.

I begin to see the people and organizations that I rely upon to protect me becoming the very enemy that I had hoped they would protect me from.

In England during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there existed an organization called the Star Chamber. This was gathering of men who sat outside government, in secret meetings, operating outside the law, to exercise the will of the king in matters too delicate or too unstable for normal political processes. It was intended as a compromise to protect the nation from revolt and social upheaval, but in many cases the Star Chamber simply devolved into a system for persecuting opponents of the men in power — there were no public hearings, no appeals; cases were tried without witnesses, often without the defendant even knowing that the trial was taking place until punishment reached out of the dark and struck him down.

I am what many would call a “big government” liberal: I believe in the ability of government to improve the lives of its people, through intelligent, enlightened intervention in matters of social change, in health care, in environmental controls, in all of those collective issues that matter so much to us but are beyond our ability, acting individually, to undertake. I can’t guarantee the safety of the water I drink, or the food I eat — that’s a job that requires all of us working collectively. I can’t build a bridge across the creek a mile from my house, not alone: I need my neighbors, my community, my government, to step in and help me.

But when the government begins to act in a way that appears to be completely independent from the people — concealing its actions and its motivations from the people, and in fact begins to treat the people as an enemy that must be watched, and controlled, spied upon and manipulated, even lied to … I worry.

We’re told that our elected representatives in Congress have been privy to what’s happening from the beginning, that they have approved of what the NSA has been doing. The implication there is that, as our proxies, those representatives represent us, that they represent our will in this matter, so if they approve it’s a sign that we approve. Does anyone remember a candidate promising to support secret tribunals and warrantless spying in the last election cycle? I understand that, according to current polling data, a majority of Americans are okay with the surveillance — at least for the moment — but how can we support a program we aren’t supposed to know exists?

And most importantly of all, how can we defend ourselves if we don’t even know we’re being attacked? Who is the enemy? Al Qaida, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Branch Davidians, unhappy right-wingers with a carload of fertilizer — or millions of Gmail and Verizon customers going about their daily lives, unaware that their government believes they may be part of some vast threat? I think there is a difference.

If we willingly accept becoming both victims and criminals in this enterprise, then we may be seeing what has been a magnificent experiment in democracy grinding to an ignoble and grimy end.

Surveillance-proofing my computer? I’ve downloaded the package, but I haven’t installed it. After all, what do I have to hide?