Oh, to be transported back to a more innocent time, just a few weeks ago, when the greatest problem with the exercise of federal power seemed (merely) to be the Internal Revenue Service’s selective targeting of a handful of political organizations. Compared to what we’ve learned since, the IRS scandal seems a passing trifle.
I’m talking, of course, about the revelation that our government is engaged in widespread surveillance of its citizens. As Jay Leno put it, “We wanted a president that listens to all Americans — now we have one.”
Anybody who loves the Constitution and the freedoms it protects must wonder at what cost we’ve gained the illusion of security. Since Sept. 11, 2001, life has changed. This we know. But much of that change has been self-inflicted, by presidents of both parties.
We’ve lost hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of human lives in two of the longest wars in American history (one still being waged, 12 years and counting), supported by a private-sector complex feeding an endless appetite for servers, cameras and aerial drones. Surely, Ike would be appalled.
The federal government grows apace, adding agencies with acronyms like DHS and TSA, along with their debt-fueled budgets and massive bureaucracies.
We’re still free to “move about the country” on Southwest, United or Delta, but only after standing in line, 3-ounce bottles of shampoo ready for inspection. And heaven forbid we need to walk with the aid of a light-saber-shaped cane, such as the one TSA agents attempted to confiscate from Peter Mayhew, the actor who played Chewbacca in “Star Wars,” just a few weeks ago at DIA.
And now this: Our own government has developed and deployed a wide-ranging surveillance infrastructure trained, at least in part, on our own communications.
It’s cliché to indulge in “What would Abraham Lincoln do?” inquiries at times like this, but I’m only human. So here goes.
In 1838, Lincoln addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill. The topic was nominally slavery, but as was his wont, Lincoln extrapolated from that particular issue observations about the strengths — and weaknesses — of American institutions.
Here’s what he said: “All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the Earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.”
He continued: “(A)t what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
So I think it’s fair to ask again, as so many have done before me: Do the things we are now giving up (privacy, constitutionalism) outweigh the things we have gained (a possibly illusory modicum of security) in return?
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”