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Why the Surveillance State Must End

This post originally appeared in The Daily Caller. You can read the original here.

In this era of tone-deaf leadership, it seems the National Security Agency is the only government outfit that actually listens.

Congress certainly pays no mind, either to its constituents or to the words of the nation’s Founders. In narrowly defeating a House amendment introduced by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), members of both parties evinced they do not comprehend individual freedom as codified in the Constitution, or as demanded by a growing number of modern Americans.

The Amash-Conyers amendment would have reined in the NSA’s indiscriminate collection of Americans’ phone records. Specifically, it would have limited such surveillance to people subject to investigation, per Section 15 of the Patriot Act.

The amendment was championed by liberty-minded legislators like Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), yet both Republican and Democratic leadership made it their business to see it defeated, which it was, by a vote of 217 to 205.

(Pause for a moment and consider: The Patriot Act, which for a dozen years has served as shorthand for all that offends liberal politicians, suddenly does not go far enough for Nancy Pelosi.)

And so, for now, the federal government will continue to track the phone calls of all Americans – in the form of so-called “metadata” – without probable cause and, thereby, without regard for the Fourth Amendment.

Some, including my Daily Caller colleague Julie Borowski, have averred that the relative closeness of the vote represents a partial victory for civil liberties, auguring success for future efforts. Here’s hoping they’re right.

A recent Pew poll found that 50% of Americans approve of the government collecting phone and Internet data for anti-terrorism purposes, while 44% disapprove. In that same poll, however, 56% of respondents say courts do not provide adequate limits on what is collected, 63% believe it is the content of calls and emails being harvested (rather than just “metadata”), and a whopping 70% believe the government is using this information for purposes other than combatting terror. 

Time and again, when questioned about “anti-terrorism” government programs, people approve in the abstract, but their enthusiasm wanes when they are confronted with their practical applications.

Proper leaders do not govern by polls, but one expects them to apply common sense. And that is what is so dispiriting about this action in particular, and the national security state in general. One wishes politicians would take a step back, assess that a country constantly banging on about how free it is collects the phone records and emails of all its citizens, searches them like inmates when they seek to travel, demands taxes and financial records even if they live overseas, and ask themselves one simple question: “Are you kidding me?”

In defending NSA practices, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) insisted, “Somebody leading up to the September 11 attacks who was a terrorist overseas, called a terrorist living amongst us in the United States, and we missed it because we didn’t have this capability.”

What crippling nonsense this is. Besides the fact that the U.S. government had already “missed” repeated opportunities to nab Osama bin Laden during the 1990s, are we to believe we can only stop terrorists by monitoring absolutely everyone? And incidentally, when was this fateful phone call we missed, and how would we have found it among every other call across, into and out of the country? The congressman does not say.

A notable defender of the NSA regime is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is often mentioned as a front-runner for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Christie called the bipartisan strain of libertarianism that objects to such programs a “dangerous thought” and challenged those opposed to make their case to families of those killed on 9/11. Quoth Christie: “I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation.”

What’s “dangerous” is another potential president who sees nothing wrong with expanding the surveillance state, and whose ready argument in its defense is a shameful appeal to victimhood.

Christie’s argument is a non sequitur, much like the policy he purports to defend. What, exactly, does he dare us to say to these widows and orphans? “Sorry for your loss but, not to worry, we will collect the phone records of every single American to honor your loved ones”?

There will always be people, from somewhere, who wish to harm us. This is an historical maxim. Another is that you cannot prevent bad things from happening. One takes precautions, certainly, but evil does not rest, screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place. The issue becomes one of degree: How much security will we tolerate in order to mitigate risk?

Security expert Bruce Schneier has observed that terrorism itself cannot end our way of life – only our reaction to it can.

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If it helps, think of the War on Terror as a bad cold – the worst one you ever had, lasting 12 years with no end in sight. The most unpleasant symptoms – stuffy nose, chest congestion, etc. – are not caused by the virus, but by your own immune system going Balzac trying to protect you.

This column does not dispute that al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups wish to do us harm, and they have succeeded on occasion. But a greater danger is posed by the world’s most powerful government, with unlimited resources, including an unsurpassed arsenal and the literal ability to print its own money, making vassals of its citizens in the name of security.

The question we must ask ourselves is: How do we wish to live, day to day? Will we accept that not every aspect of life can or should be controlled, and still go confidently in the direction of our dreams? Or will we yield our liberties, incrementally and indefinitely, to a centralized power that offers vainglorious promises of safety?

If we choose the latter, by what right do we call ourselves Americans?

And this is why these surveillance state silly-bears must end: Because so long as they persist, this is not America – at least, not in the freedom-minded sense it has always been perceived. It will remain a grand expanse, with a rich history, but with none of its founding ideals of liberty, and lacking any aspiration to them. To avoid this fate, we must tolerate less from our government, and expect more of ourselves.

Theo Caldwell is the author ofFinn the half-Great


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