Other than a possible hiccup in the volume of telephone sex, did the revelation that the National Security Agency is bugging our phones pack much of a wallop? It did among civil libertarians and privacy fetishists, but it appears that perhaps 150 million citizens of the United States face the possibility of being tapped without a court order with flaccid equanimity. They couldn’t care less.
They are of the “I don’t have anything to hide” school of opinion—and if you complain that the government is bruising your private space, they take this as evidence that you’re entertaining unwholesome political thoughts. You may even be one of those loathsome Americans who hate their own country.
It’s not surprising: For 50 years now, polling on the subject of the Bill of Rights has shown that most people can take it or leave it—that is, if they know what it is in the first place. Whether they have it or don’t isn’t of much concern to them. When these people get into a loud fight in a restaurant and are told to stuff it, they have been known to flare up and ask, with alcoholic belligerence: “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” But that doesn’t make them civil libertarians.
Regardless of the guff coming out of the mouths of politicians of both parties, history teaches us that liberty is a cause upheld by minorities. Majorities have no interest in it. Whatever stuff is said at the graveside of fallen soldiers about freedom and such, majorities do not bother themselves about the subject. If majorities cared about freedom, the black man would not have spent 200 years first in slavery and then in legal peonage.
In the American mind—assuming there is one—freedom and patriotism are conflated. Standing at the ballpark with hand over heart listening to yet one more ear-splitting rendition of the National Anthem is freedom. Should a person choose to sit and chomp on a hotdog during this tediously empty exercise, said person would get one helluva dose of freedom dumped on him.
So let us not expect help in the defense of liberty from the goofy S.U.V.-driving public. These people can’t stand up to their credit-card or insurance companies. They are cheated by their banks, hornswoggled by their cell-phone providers, swindled by their stockbrokers, imposed upon by Microsoft, and all with seldom more than a grumble of complaint. A people lacking the spine to defend day-to-day material interests are not going to put themselves out to protect intangible assets such as liberty. Freedom for the members of this herd means being able to pick their vacation dates.
The N.S.A. telephone-tapping story was broken by The New York Times, which had held it for a year before publication. Because it was held for so long, the credit accorded The Times for breaking it was diminished in a puff of controversy.
The story itself may not have gotten the scrutiny it ought to have had. Beyond the announcement that this quasi-police/quasi-military agency was tapping phones—apparently on a large scale and without the appropriate court orders—there were no hard facts: no names, no attributions, no nothing much in the piece. It was so devoid of solid information that, had it run in a less-prestigious publication, one would guess that little attention would have been paid to it.
But The Times is The Times, and the story set off a storm in the media and among the politicians—even though, when closely examined, it was little more than the publication of a rumor. Then the White House was obliging enough to confirm the rumor, in a vague way: It affirmed that telephone tapping without authorization by a judge was taking place—and little else. Ever since, more rumors and speculations have filled the public space and private conversation.
One of the salient characteristics of an authoritarian or a totalitarian society is the part played by rumors, whispers, speculation, tattle-tales, and the sly humor of cynical people accustomed to a civic and political life in which lies alternate with silence. Such a society is hallmarked by the prevalence of conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking. Dating from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, conspiracy thinking has, year by year, become more prevalent even as the government has become more secretive, contradictory and unreliable.
A case in point is the secret meetings that Vice President Dick Cheney held with oil-company executives to discuss the administration’s energy policy. The failure to make the contents of those meetings public far outweighs any legalistic arguments against doing so. Whatever the truth, the President has never been able to shake the conviction held by many that he went to war in Iraq at the bidding of oil-industry interests. As gasoline and heating-oil prices have risen, so has the talk that the government arranged it that way.
The administration won’t make public what went on inside its offices leading up to and during the collapse of its Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Given the role that the federal government has in every part of daily life, when Washington shrouds itself in secrecy, people will supply their own facts and build their conclusions on them.
There are people (and seemingly lots of them) who believe that the government connived at or arranged for the 9/11 attacks—proof that conspiracy thinking thrives when public debate is deprived of reliable, factual information.
When it leaks out that the government is noting what sites we go to on our computers but providing no details about the whys and hows, details of one kind or another will be found and published on the Internet. Not that an Internet is needed to have a public life redolent of rumor, leak, conspiracy and a general sense of persecution. There was plenty of the same in the old Internet-less Soviet Union, but without a doubt the Internet accelerates misinformation, distortion, paranoia and the other unhappy offspring of a government which, out of policy and habit, hides not only what it is doing now, but even the history of what it did long ago. How can there be a free marketplace of ideas when there is no factual foundation to put it on?
In authoritarian societies, the government knows everything about the citizen and the citizen knows little or nothing about the government. Where knowledge and information on every kind of topic is withheld, where the news from nowhere leaks out in strange, twisted and incomplete forms from mysterious sources, where so little of political moment can be tested against any standard of veracity, the individual—already reduced by the gigantic institutions surrounding him—is in a situation not so different from the communist-capitalist authoritarianism of China.
Rumor, fear and confusion taint ordinary public life when a sphinx-like government is reported to be carrying out abductions, assassinations, clandestine imprisonments, secret trials and torture. Americans debate in the darkness about how much pain you can inflict before it’s torture—an argument over hypothetical situations, since no one knows what’s going on. Heretofore, such deeds have been associated with authoritarian or totalitarian societies. Now rumor has it that the world’s loudest democracy may be doing the same.
Nobody knows. Secrecy and supposition permeate the discourse. When explanations are offered by officials standing at lecterns draped with the seal and emblem of their agencies, they say it’s the war. And whom are we fighting? That’s a secret. What are the names of our enemies? That’s a secret, too. Why are we fighting? Classified. When will the war be over? We can’t tell you. What’s happening? You don’t need to know … but there is a rumor it might end soon.