Ringside Seat: In the Name of Terror

Imagine that the government said the following: There is a terrible threat to Americans' lives that we need to address, and though in the past we've tried, we haven't done enough. This scourge has killed nearly 400,000 Americans over the last decade, and the government wouldn't be doing its job in keeping us safe if it didn't take some extraordinary measures to deal with it. This threat is known as the automobile, and to confront it, we're instituting a new system to keep it from killing so many of us. What we need is information, to understand who has accidents and under what circumstances they occur. 

To that end, we'd be told, the Department of Transportation will over the next few months be installing a small, unobtrusive tracking device on every American's car. This device will enable the government to see where you've driven, at what times, and at what speeds. With this information, we hope to stop accidents before they happen. And to those who might be uncomfortable with the government having all this information about your movements, we say this: If you aren't doing anything wrong, you should have nothing to worry about.

Needless to say, the American public would never stand for that. So why is it that people aren't angrier that the government is keeping records on their phone calls and scanning their emails? There may be many reasons, but we'd focus on a few. First, the experience of the last 12 years has shown that the government can get away with almost anything so long as it invokes the threat of terrorism. The fact that Americans are literally more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist—in 2011, for instance, 17 Americans died in terrorist attacks while 26 were killed in lightning strikes—hasn't diminished the instinctive fear response whenever the magic "T" word is spoken.

Second, major Internet and social media companies like Google and Facebook—the very ones now providing the government with all kinds of information on you—have softened us up when it comes to the privacy of our communications. We've gotten used to the idea that our emails are being read by a computer, which then uses what we say to deliver tailored advertisements to us. Because hey, Gmail is great, so what're you gonna do?

Finally, when it comes to these invasions of our privacy, they're out of sight, out of mind. When you have to take off your shoes at the airport, there's no escaping the understanding that you're being forced to participate in a farcical bit of security theater in the name of preventing terrorism. But it's easy to forget that your cell-phone provider is tracking your calls and giving the information to the government. And rest assured, forgetting is just what most people will do after this issue fades from the headlines in a week or so.

So They Say

"The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it."

— New York Times editorial on NSA surveillance

Daily Meme: A Timeline of Obama's Terror Rhetoric

  • September 2003: "Yes, I would vote to repeal the U.S. Patriot Act, although I would consider replacing that shoddy and dangerous law with a new, carefully crafted proposal that addressed in a much more limited fashion the legitimate needs of law enforcement in combating terrorism."
  • February 2006: "Soon after the PATRIOT Act passed, a few years before I ever arrived in the Senate, I began hearing concerns from people of every background and political leaning that this law didn't just provide law enforcement the powers it needed to keep us safe, but powers it didn't need to invade our privacy without cause or suspicion. ... [M]embers on both sides of the aisle will need to take a careful look at President Bush's use of warrantless wiretaps and determine the right balance between protecting our security and safeguarding our civil liberties."
  • March 2007: "Americans fought a revolution in part over the right to be free from unreasonable searches, to ensure that our government couldn’t come knocking in the middle of the night for no reason. We need to find a way forward to make sure that we [stop] terrorists while protecting the privacy and liberty of innocent Americans.”
  • August 2007: "[The Bush] Administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not."
  • November 2007: “The threat that we face now is nowhere near as dire as it was in the Cold War. We shouldn’t allow our politics to be driven by the fear of terrorism.”
  • December 2007: "As president, I will follow existing law, and when it comes to U.S. citizens and residents, I will only authorize surveillance for national security purposes consistent with FISA and other federal statutes."
  • May 2013: "Thwarting homegrown plots presents particular challenges in part because of our proud commitment to civil liberties for all who call America home.  That’s why, in the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are. That means reviewing the authorities of law enforcement, so we can intercept new types of communication, but also build in privacy protections to prevent abuse."
  • June 2013: “You know, I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

What We're Writing

  • When Barack Obama carried Virginia in the 2008 presidential election, it was the first time the state had gone blue since Lyndon Johnson won it in 1964. The Old Dominion, clearly, has turned purple. But as Jamelle Bouie writes in the fourth and final part of the “Solid South” series, the Republicans won’t go down without a fight—as the state's 2013 elections are showing.
  • The revelation that the NSA, the FBI, and several telecommunications companies are spying on ordinary citizens has caused an uproar and, for many, the unnerving feeling that Big Brother is watching. Scott Lemieux writes that all three branches of government helped cause the massive spy apparatus.

What We're Reading

  • The United Nations is launching its biggest emergency appeal ever for Syria. The UN predicts that more than half of the conflict-ridden country's population will need aid by the end of the year.
  • Vanity Fair unpacks the first casualties of the cyber war.
  • Defense contractors are following potential profit away from the Middle East, where two wars are waning, to the Mexican border.
  • As the next summer Olympics approaches, Brazil is trying to crack down on the drug trade. The ramp-up has had unintended consequences.
  • In Mexico, the drug war rages on as well.
  • Jane Mayer explains why the government collecting phone metadata can be just as troubling as collecting content.
  • Edward Luce examines the new trend where the middle class is swarming to the city, while the poor are priced out to the suburbs.

Poll of the Day

Paul Ryan came out on top of a list of potential Republican Primary candidates, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of registered Republicans. The congressman and former vice presidential nominee was seen favorably by 62 percent and unfavorably by only 13 percent. Senator Rand Paul came in second, with 53 percent favorability. Chris Christie? Not so much: Although the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has broad bipartisan appeal, only 40 percent of Republicans view him favorably.

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