The Security State as Security Blanket

What Burke said of the revolutionary French can be said of the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of information on mobile telephone calls too: “They who destroy every thing certainly will remove some grievance.  They who make every thing new, have a chance that they may establish something beneficial.”  They who sweep every telephone call into a dragnet hardly worthy of the name—dragnets, after all, imply some discretion—certainly will catch some malfeasance.  And here we arrive at the problem. Snooping on this scale is almost surely neither wholly unnecessary nor wholly unproductive—so long as the standard to which we hold our leaders is that they must prevent all bad things at all times. Hence, such outrage as is currently—and appropriately—being directed toward Washington ought also be bent inward.  The security state is our security blanket.  They won’t give it up until we do.

Your correspondent was not at the meeting—his invitation having been misrouted—and his sources are not as good as the indispensable Glenn Greenwald’s, but when the Obama Administration first met to review the NSA snooping program, it almost certainly went down like this: “Mr. President, this program has ensnared the following plots.  Without it, they would have gone forward.  Do you want to be responsible for the attacks that proceed because this program was canceled?”

Setting aside the question of whether the plots could have been otherwise foiled, any president is going to feel placed in an impossible position by the challenge—except, that is, a president willing to treat the public like adults.  Since we seem bent on treating presidents like father figures anyway, why not look to one for a teachable moment, as in: “The world is big and scary, and the only way I can protect you against every eventuality is to limit your liberty to a degree that ought to be unacceptable to us both.  So let’s strike a grown-up bargain: I don’t attempt to invade your lives and you don’t hold me responsible for that which I can’t control without invading your lives.”

That is a conversation our blame-obsessed—which is to say childish—political culture cannot tolerate.  We cannot entertain the possibility that bad things happen to good people, so once one does, guilt must be visited upon the unfortunate head of some discrete political actor—“unfortunate,” that is, except insofar as such an actor is entitled to all the power that resides on the converse of responsibility.

To the extent one can predict the behavior of political actors by what maximizes their power—and that extent would appear to be considerable—we ought to expect the White House to defend the surveillance program in full-throated terms: It prevents terrorist attacks.  To be sure, one suspects the sheer volume of information collected is, at some point, an impediment to its effective use, but here is the larger difficulty: They may be right.  It would be entirely unsurprising to learn that, in the course of collecting this volume of information on cellular calls, the authorities stumbled across one made by a terrorist.

The unavoidable issue is whether we want attacks prevented at all costs.  Cost-benefit analysis is an art especially lost where costs are measured in liberty.  Yet given our endless proclivity to moralize the “Global War on Terror”—our troops are fighting not merely to protect our security but to advance the cause of freedom and, in President Bush’s phrase, “rid the world of evil”—this seems like a difficult analysis to avoid.

It is a question for policymakers, including those in Congress who will howl in outrage but who voted to authorize the law under which this warrant was issued.  But it is also a question for the rest of us: How much risk are we willing to tolerate in exchange for our liberty?  That is decidedly the tradeoff, the current standard is “none,” and the cost in liberty and privacy is predictably high.

To say the public’s childish attitudes toward risk share the blame for the NSA’s snooping program does not in the slightest sense alleviate the Administration’s responsibility for it.  The point, rather, is that the president and public are much in the position of gunfighters in the Old West, each needing to trust the other to holster his weapon—that is, the president’s power and the public’s blame—without firing.  It would be nice if the party officially designated as a leader went first.  If he won’t, we still can.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College, is the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. His book American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be published by University Press of Kansas in early 2015.

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  1. says

    The point being made here should be extended by incorporating one of Mike Rappaport’s occasional topics: cognitive biases. It is not a simple matter of how much risk should be traded for a given quantum of liberty. We seem to tolerate the risk of automobile associated risk without much thought, yet a similar number of deaths from an exotic virus is likely to cause panic and draconian demands for “doing something.” The risk of dying while skiing is not insignificant, yet entire federal agencies are not mobilized to prevent them. The same goes for alcohol related deaths, drowning in private pools, falling off ladders, etc.

    What the defender of liberty needs to understand is that it is not the risk of death, or injury that is a threat. It is rather the risk of spectacular death. This explains why Sandy Hook trumps the much larger body count from a few weeks in Chicago, or why Boston submitted to “shelter in place,” while detectives and patrolmen in other cities regularly and tediously search for serial killers, psychopaths, rapists, violent drug felons, etc. while life goes on around them, unvexed by the pursuit.

    This is not merely a political problem, but a cultural one. It encompasses the media, both the news media and the political commentariat; mass psychology; primal fears; and opportunistic demagogues. The danger is not really that we will be rationally talked out of our liberties as an accommodation to real-world perils; the danger is that we will jettison them, unnoticed, in fits of hysteria.

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