What kind of society do we want to live in? That's the philosophical question at the heart of the debate about the National Security Agency collecting call logs and Internet content on millions of Americans in the name of finding terrorists. I hang my head in disbelief at the continual framing of the debate in solely practical terms. I instinctively think in philosophical terms.
When the news broke, I had a visceral reaction. The confirmation of the existence of these sweeping programs was like a punch in the gut for this centrist civil libertarian. Yet people whom I know and many pundits and politicians simply shrugged. They seemed uninterested in taking a stand. Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland said in 1937 that "the saddest epitaph which can be carved in memory of a vanished liberty is that it was lost because its possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while yet there was time."
Some have excused the programs saying they are consistent with statutory law, ignoring the broad and heretofore secret interpretation of statutory law -- and ignoring the fact that the Constitution is supreme to any statute. Some have deferred to the agency's claims of efficacy, even though this gross violation of privacy seems disproportionate to the alleged benefit.
Worst of all, some have predictably proclaimed that they have nothing to hide -- and even if they did, the odds are extremely low that the government's suspicions would be raised for them or any given person. These people fail to understand that vast government surveillance programs, not based on any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing, could lead to wrong inferences and, therefore, some very bad practical consequences for innocent citizens.
Even if I conceded the point that there is little practical impact on the lives of average Americans, I nevertheless have a philosophical problem with the NSA surveillance programs.
Aristotle said that the innate, ultimate goal of humanity is to experience happiness. Human beings are conscious, self-aware creatures. We know that we are born only to eventually die, and so we want the time between birth and death to be happy. Aristotle wasn't simply talking about the happiness that flows from sensual pleasures, physical comfort or financial security; but rather the happiness that is achieved when we can learn and grow, when we can reach our potential and become our best selves. True happiness comes when we can flourish.
How do we flourish? We flourish when we are free. We flourish when we live within a societal and governing structure that respects individual liberty.
Some might say that thinking in philosophical terms is quaint, simplistic or impractical. But philosophy and great ideas are the foundations of society. The revolutionary generation took a huge gamble. Humans had largely ruled other humans by force and not by merit. Monarchies had reigned for thousands of years across civilizations. Yet, influenced by the philosophy of The Enlightenment, the founders had a crazy idea: that a society should be based on individual liberty first and foremost, and that citizens should not be subjugated by government but should instead rule themselves. While oppression permeates human history, there has always been an inextinguishable spark of desire deep within each human soul to be free.
Constant, pervasive government surveillance changes the relationship between the people and the government -- it shifts the balance of power. No longer is the government for the people, by the people. It becomes an entity above and apart from the people, an entity with immense power that can be abused.
Government surveillance changes human psychology, whether those changes occur consciously or not. Over time, generations of citizens move from feelings of independence, empowerment and enthusiasm, to feelings of dependence, concession and cynicism. In the worst case, innocent citizens experience fear and think twice before speaking or acting.
This may sound dramatic, like this isn't where our country is today. But as a Verizon customer and an avid user of the Internet, I have already thought twice and I resent this. Even a single fleeting thought along these lines is poison for a free society.
With such a loss of liberty the human spirit eventually becomes dampened. Dampened spirits can't flourish, and spirits that can't flourish can't truly be happy.
Now that the NSA surveillance programs aren't secret anymore, I fear that the majority of Americans and the politicians who represent us will decide that the programs should continue - without recognizing that the surveillance precedent set today will only be a starting point in the future (unless the Supreme Court takes one of the recently filed cases and rules the programs unconstitutional).
Former senator Alan Simpson said in 1982, "There is no 'slippery slope' toward loss of liberties, only a long staircase where each step downward must be first tolerated by the American people and their leaders." I don't want to live in that kind of society.