This is an article by a former professor of mine at Iowa State University named Steffen Schmidt. Since I knew Dr. Schmidt (known as “Dr. Politics” by his students) back in the late 1980s, he’s gone on to become a periodical opinion columnist for the Ames Tribune – a paper I mocked mercilessly as the epitome of the small-town news-free newspaper when I lived in Ames, but which I probably would have purchased at least a few times had Schmidt been writing for them back then.
It’s all the more welcome for me to forward on to you an example of one of his columns given that he has just managed to uncork a great one about the current privacy/NSA/”secret government” nexus of issues being discussed in the US right now.
This paragraph, with which he ends the article, is probably the best summation of what the real issue we’re all debating right now really is at its core:
“When I was in Cuba once, on a State Department-approved educational trip, there were many, many things we found disturbing about the Castro regime. There was one aspect of Cuba, however, that we appreciated, and that was that Havana was safer than Ankeny. The reason: Every other person on the street was a government security agent, most of them in civilian clothing.”
Now, it’s been a while since I’ve been back to Iowa – so I really can’t attest to whether the once-placid town of Ankeny has now become such a nest of vipers that people can’t walk the streets any longer, or anything like that – but the point about Havana is really _the_ point.
Americans obviously don’t want the US to turn into something like Cuba. But they do value their safety. Something which would do a much better job of protecting their safety lies in the direction of being a bit more like Cuba than less like Cuba.
Basically, given that, you have three choices:
1) You could say “Oh what the hell,” form local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, rat out your neighbours for not clapping enthusiastically enough at the leader’s speeches, and just give in to your inner totalitarian. Once a Cuban always a Cuban.
2) You could say “Not for me buster,” form local Committees for Pure Constitutional Liberty, insist that no one can look you in the face without producing the proper court order, and be blown up by a terrorist who manages to slip through all the non-security. Give me liberty and death, too, while we’re at it.
3) You could say “You know, I’d just like to be alive long enough to enjoy some of this liberty stuff. I’m willing to sacrifice my stupid phone records for a government database that can catch terrorists effectively.”
I might add that explicitly bringing the Communist experience into all of this adds a bit of clarity. We are aware that Communist countries have dreadful records where civil liberties are concerned. Though people can make occasional claims that Communist countries have “positive” liberties, like health care, education, guaranteed employment, it’s always been obvious that this has come at the expense of the “negative” liberties, like speaking in public, free assembly for redress of grievances, mobility rights including the right of expatriation, the right to vote in competitive elections, etc., etc.
These are things Americans, even under His Secrecy Barack Obama, take utterly for granted. These are also things that can’t secretly be taken away. If they are taken, it will be obvious to the world.
In this article, Schmidt correctly points out that safety and privacy tradeoffs are not new to the post-9/11 world. Indeed, the first airport metal detectors were a response to airplane hijackings by late 60s/early 70s left-wing radicals, not jihadis. Strictly speaking, of course, every time we have to take all the metal things out of everything we’re holding in order to go through the detector, that’s a violation of our privacy, too. In an earlier age, we all noticed that. Now, we’ve been doing that for so long we barely notice – and we have largely accepted the rationale for it, too…we want to ride on a safe plane.
The spectre of Cuba lies in that direction? Perhaps. But we can stop before we get there. In fact, we will probably catch any hijacker who wants to take us there.