Your Right to Privacy? Not in the War on Terror

They must be very, very, very dirty pictures. They were dirty enough to drag Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales away from writing legal memoranda justifying torture and get him on a plane to Chicago. Once he arrived in the Windy City, he announced that 27 people, here and abroad, have been charged with being members of a child-pornography Internet ring. “The behavior in these chat rooms and the images many of these defendants sent around the world through peer-to-peer file-sharing programs and private instant-messaging services are the worst imaginable forms of child pornography,” a scandalized and profoundly shocked A.G. intoned.

The good man was quickly seconded by Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who told a group of doubtless shocked and salivating reporters: “Some of the aspects of this case are truly horrifying …. It’s hard to find cases more heinous than those that involve the exploitation of children.”

Ms. Myers explained that there are new and deeply disturbing trends in the child-pornography community—among them, according to a New York Times report, “the growing use of sophisticated security measures and of peer-to-peer networking, where participants can share files with one another on their computers rather than downloading them off a Web site …. The group used encryption and data destruction software to protect the files and screening measures to ensure only authorized participants could enter the chat room.”

As if all this were not horrifying enough, we learn that the alleged malefactors use false Internet names such as “Lord Newbie” and “A_School_Teacher.” The ringleader, if that is the right word for what he’s supposed to have done, is one Royal Raymond Weller, 49, of Clarksville, Tenn., described as a service repairman. Even if Lord Newbie and the Clarksville service repairman are guilty as charged, what is the U.S. Attorney General doing in Chicago holding a press conference about a bunch of alleged lowlifes trading pictures among themselves of their perversions?

Or is there also some kind of political perversion afoot here? Are we being offered the notion of sex terrorism, inasmuch as our fear of Islamofascist terrorism (and therefore our zeal for fighting in Iraq) is showing signs of winding down? If the war against terrorism is, by definition, a very long one, it pales in comparison with the time needed to rid America of child pornography and its related perversions. Before we win this one, we will be on red alert or, as they say in the Pentagon, Defcon 1 (maximum force readiness) forever. In a nation of almost one third of a billion people, can there come a time when there will not be one single child molester doing something so disgusting that it will not drive up TV ratings and get people re-elected?

The genre of press conference of the kind Mr. Gonzales put on is hardly new in American politics and law enforcement (to the extent that it has anything to do with law enforcement). Generally, when the boys and girls put on this sort of show, it’s a drug bust—drug busts are ideal because the photo ops are so rich. The stupid reporters and the stupid photographers are led into a room where bags of cocaine or bricks of marijuana are displayed along with the chief of the flatfoots (ancient word for dumb cop) and the district attorney pointing a fat, stubby finger at the evil contraband.

It is the custom to announce, as the pictures are being taken, that this is the largest drug bust in the history of the city or county or state, with a street value (wholesale prices are never quoted) equaling one quarter of the national debt. The effect of record-breaking largeness was achieved on this occasion by the number of persons charged—no less than 27—and by putting special emphasis on the global aspects of the crime. Pictures shot round and round the world on the Internet, if you can imagine!

The Pentagon does the same thing in Iraq, but they use guns and explosives instead of dope. The reporters and photogs are ushered into a chamber where weapons and such are laid out as a spokesperson explains the record-breaking size of the seizure. As with the war on drugs and the war on pornography, the official line is that this haul constitutes a body blow against the bad guys, who are now reeling in confusion and defeat. A few weeks or months later, the business is repeated, just as though the performance is real news about a real change in the objective situation.

What we don’t know about Mr. Gonzales’ picture performance is whether this was something that he decided to do on his own or whether, with the administration slipping in the public-opinion polls, this was to demonstrate that the clumsy idiots running the government can too get something right, or whether this was calculated to keep up public anxiety about the forces of evil—Islamic, pharmaceutical or sexual—so as to maintain support for Operation Peeping Tom, as we might call the administration’s effort to watch and listen to all we do and say.

In times past, the American government’s attempts to spy on citizens have only been able to proceed with a lot of public support. What was done during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ascendancy was done with vast approval by the members of what is now referred to as the Greatest Generation. During the time of the civil-rights and anti–Vietnam War struggles, the spying went on until the public turned against it. Then and only then was it stopped.

It is an open question as to whether the spying will stop this time if and when the broad mass of people turn against it—something they are a long way from doing now. People are too frightened to get indignant about being snooped on; 9/11 is too fresh in their minds and, as Senator Russell Feingold can tell you, most of us reject the proposition that maintaining personal freedom and privacy is worth paying for by suffering a heightened risk that the bombers will hit us again.

Supposing that public opinion turned against the wiretapping and sneak-peeking into our homes and offices, would the government stop? In the bad old days, only a few organs of the American government were spying on American citizens. Now there are an unknown number of official entities in the business of finding out your business. The other day, Knight Ridder’s talented Jonathan S. Landay filed a piece with this headline: “Pentagon Hired Contractor to Advise on Collecting Information on Churches, Mosques, Other U.S. Sites.” In addition to the government agencies whose initials we are familiar with, private companies are also being used to spy on us and our activities. In all likelihood, there are not enough Jonathan Landays to find them all.

It used to be the law that the government had to find a judge and get a warrant to pry into any area of your life wherever you had “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” That’s gone now. These days, they do not need anybody’s permission to spy on you. They can do it whenever they feel like it— and, of course, using private outfits to do the spying increases the chances that the information obtained will be used either to blackmail you or steal from you. Anyone who thinks a government, or its corrupt agents, which has no need to justify its clandestine activities against its own citizens will not use the power to extort and steal is asking to be robbed.

In a nation like ours, the use of this kind of unrestrained power for political persecution is rare. Why, you ask? Because Americans don’t do anything political to be persecuted for in the first place. As it stands, they hardly vote.

The government will kick some innocent Arabs and a few non-Arab Muslims in the heinie, as they have been doing already—but, as time goes by and the use of unrestrained, unreviewable power to spy and pry becomes a matter of course, these unseen people taking your picture, going through your papers and learning your business secrets, financial secrets and even your sex secrets will use the information to extort whatever it is you have that they want from you.

It used to be when somebody said, “Let’s not talk about it, my phone may be tapped,” you would think the other person was suffering from delusions of grandeur—but, nowadays, they tap anybody’s phone. Everywhere you go, they take your picture. You don’t have to be a big shot to merit such attention.

What to do about it? You could support Mr. Feingold, who seems to be the only important figure in official life who takes these things seriously, but he is considered over the top and not many of us care to go over the top with him.

The other course of action is to embrace a rat strategy. Hide everything, and take every possible precaution to make sure you’re not being photographed or listened to. Live as the dissidents lived in the old Soviet Union and contemplate the irony that, though you are not even a dissident, in this newly evolving totalitarian democracy of ours, you still must live as though you were a subversive or an Arab. The injustice of it! That they would do that to you—a person who has always clapped when they told you to.

On the brighter side, we can be sure that Attorney General Gonzales hasn’t held his last press conference. More laughs are in store.