“2005 will be remembered as the year in which mass surveillance became normal, even popular.” Now that is a frightful thought, but we see it all around us. What will 2006 bring? “Some say that these new government actions are taking us closer to “1984.” But, in fact, the key year was 1651. That’s when the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published “The Leviathan,” a hugely influential political science tome that laid the intellectual groundwork for a strong central government.”
Online Athens/James P. Pinkerton
January 2 2006
2005 will be remembered as the year in which mass surveillance became normal, even popular.
Revelations about the Bush administration’s domestic eavesdropping rocked the civil liberties establishment, but the country as a whole didn’t seem upset. Instead, the American people, mindful of the possible danger that we face, seem happy enough that Uncle Sam is taking steps to keep up with the challenges created by new technology.
Ask yourself: Do you think it’s a bad idea for the feds, as U.S. News & World Report mentioned, to monitor Islamic sites inside the United States for any possible suspicious radiation leaks? The Council on American-Islamic Relations is up in arms – but are you?
If you were to read in the paper that some FBI agent has gotten in trouble over pointing a Geiger counter at a mosque, would you be inclined to give the FBI agent the benefit of the doubt? I thought so.
Or take another example: USA Today recently detailed government plans to deploy security agents at major airports to engage in “behavioral screening.” That is, agents chat up passengers, looking for anything suspicious. It’s a tactic that’s worked in Israel for years, and it’s being introduced here, starting with Boston’s Logan Airport. That airport, some might recall, was the departure point for two of the doomed flights on Sept. 11, 2001.
But of course, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts already has sued to oppose any such program. Who do you think the overwhelming majority of Americans want to see prevail on this question? Yes, civil liberties matter, but the majority has rights, too, and if the majority puts a premium on the nation’s safety, that view deserves respect.
Some say that these new government actions are taking us closer to “1984.” But, in fact, the key year was 1651. That’s when the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published “The Leviathan,” a hugely influential political science tome that laid the intellectual groundwork for a strong central government.
Hobbes wrote that in a state of nature, without benefit of law and law enforcement, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes believed in strong government, but he was no totalitarian.
Instead, he was reacting to the Wars of Religion that had raged across Europe for the previous century-and-a-half, in which Catholics and Protestants enthusiastically burned and butchered one another by the millions. In addition, Hobbes’ own country had just been wracked by a decade-long civil war.
Clearly, a powerful state was needed – a regime that, as he put it, would possess a monopoly of force within the society. Would people lose some of their freedoms? Sure they would, and among the freedoms lost was the freedom to hack to death the deviationist next door.
We like to think that we have made progress in the four centuries since, especially here in the United States. But we’re up against a basic reality: As populations grow denser, and as technology improves, there’s a natural need for more regulation to keep people’s elbows, and machines, from banging into each other.
That’s the reason why, for example, Wyoming is a more libertarian place than New York. Out in the West, where miles might separate people, you can pretty much do what you want. But, if millions are going to live in close proximity to one another, then lots of red tape is going to thread itself around each resident, governing not only the obvious concerns, such as weapons and pollution, but matters such as noise abatement and cigarette smoking.
And now, in the name of homeland security, more regulating – spying, if you prefer – is coming.
Even so, someday, somewhere, a Big One is going to go off. And after that, all controversies about civil liberties – and, by the way, immigration – will look different in the eyes of the survivors. An updated Hobbesian paradigm of governance will emerge – unless, of course, it’s an Orwellian paradigm instead.
Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.