Through the PRISM Glass

In the last several years, a U.S. citizen has had an infinitely higher chance of being killed by a Mexican drug cartel than by either a foreign- or domestic-bred terrorist.  These cartels are sophisticated networks that depend on high-tech communications.  Their roots run deep into American society.  They are international in scope.  They target civilians indiscriminately.  Surely programs like PRISM could help to identify their communications, suppliers and customers and generally disrupt their operations.  Why not—on the general theory that PRISM is justifiable because it saves American lives—turn the NSA loose on them?

The answer—one hopes, since we do not know this has not already occurred—is that there are costs we are not willing to pay in liberty and privacy despite their payoff in protection.  But the cartel case illustrates the difficulty of separating terrorism in kind from other causes of mayhem, and it shows therefore why programs like PRISM and the NSA’s vacuum operation on mobile phone calls are properly to be regarded with suspicion: the slope on which they reside is very slippery indeed.

To be sure, terrorism is easily classifiable by motive: politics rather than profit.  What is less clear is why the motive alone justifies more of an intrusion into civil liberties than, say, drug trafficking if the latter is more of a threat to the ordinary citizen.

Despite then-Senator Obama’s rejection of a “false choice” between liberty and security, the choice is unavoidable, for the two stand in inherent tension.  We routinely accept less of one to gain more of the other.  The tradeoff depends on the degree of the danger.  The information currently available to us suggests narco-gangs are more of a danger than radical Islamists today.  If the sole justification for programs like PRISM is that they save lives, it seems difficult to justify limiting their scope to less serious dangers—and, incidentally, drug cartels may prove to be the least of these.  If we are in fact willing to trade infinite privacy for infinite security—as a pathetically partisan margin of Americans apparently is—then the proper response to the threat of drunk drivers, which vastly trumps terrorists of both the Islamo- and narco- varieties, is a breathalyzer in every car.

No one wants that.  One presumes.  One hopes.  One wonders.  The reason is that there are tradeoffs we are unwilling to make even, crucially, if they save lives.  By contrast, as long as “saving lives” forms a sufficient warrant for any intrusion, we ought to expect every intrusion.

The fundamental problem in the case of terrorism is irrationality pertaining to risk.  The word “terrorism” distorts our thinking.  It conjures images that cause us to inflate actual risk by fixating on macabre scenarios.  Perhaps the public reaction is understandable.  But policymakers are supposed to react more calmly.  It may be that, in their cooler moments, they have a better justification for PRISM and the NSA phone-vacuuming program than that they save lives.  Unless they do, perhaps they can explain why, on their own slippery reasoning, they are not utilizing these tools against a range of lethal problems other than terrorism.  Unless, of course, they already are.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College, is a former political consultant and the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. He is currently working on a book on the political thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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