Ed Snowden, the N.S.A., and the Myth of Complexity

Shame on me, I’ve been awful slow to pay any meaningful attention to the N.S.A., in spite of its massive, unprecedented-in-the-course-of-human-history failure to extend me the same basic courtesy. It doesn’t matter if we ignore it, it’s not ignoring us – hiding, instead, all sorts of flagrant awfulness behind a plain-Jane acronym, and what, in just a moment, I’ll get around to calling “the myth of complexity.”

WikiLeaks Fort Meade

Its name in full, of course, is the National Security Agency, and, last night, I watched a fascinating film about what it does – as relayed, principally, by one of the men who used to help them do it, Edward Snowden. In secret, it collects, stores, and analyzes information about whole populations; information that we’re accustomed to think of as “private,” including phone, financial, and internet records. And – says Snowden – it does so on a truly vast scale and without sufficient safeguards, or proper judicial oversight.

There were only three of us in the theater, but hopefully there are many bigger audiences out there. And still more hopefully I can add and there should be, without you thinking me the worst kind of Jonny-come-lately. (Either way, the film is called Citizenfour and it may just be playing in a multiplex near you.)

The Biggest News Story in the World

When, in the summer of 2013, news first broke of an N.S.A. whistleblower seemingly intent on releasing classified information on a giant scale, the whistleblower in question, Ed Snowden, was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room with three people: two journalists and one filmmaker. The filmmaker was Laura Poitras, and in Citizenfour we see much of what she filmed – her camera the fly on the wall, in the middle of the biggest news story in the world and before the world even knew where that middle was.


For the simple enough reason that it’s a great story well told, Citizenfour makes for compulsive viewing. For countless other reasons it sure gets you thinking. What are our reasonable rights to privacy? What is it permissible to do in the interests of national security? What are we being protected against? And whom, exactly, is protecting us from whom?

Brighter minds than mine are grappling with these issues, and Citizenfour persuasively shows how high the stakes are. As another of its talking heads says at one point, we’re too quick to think of the N.S.A.’s intrusions simply as a matter of privacy; in fact, a government that routinely spies on its own citizens threatens fundamental civil liberties. Enlightened democracies allow free assembly, free speech, free access to information, and a broad spectrum of opposing viewpoints. When those things start to slip away, well, odds are you’re no longer living in an enlightened democracy (and as the 20th century ought to have proved, the alternatives aren’t too appealing).

Existential Threat

A whole lot of grand, abstract themes, right? But here’s the thing: after watching Citizenfour a much simpler thought finally lodged in my head (perhaps it should have been there all along). If America keeps on acting like a bit of a dick, sooner or later it’s hard to avoid the obvious conclusion. Oh dear, America is a bit of a dick.

The N.S.A., and the politicians and bureaucracies that nourish it, want us desperately to believe that we live in a uniquely complex and dangerous world – and that they represent our best hope of surviving it. It just isn’t true, though, is it?

Stalin Propaganda

My, what short memories we all have! Hitler dragged a powerful nation, as its supreme, all-powerful leader, into a cataclysmic war. Stalin’s reign of terror lasted even longer, and was similarly ruinous. Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, led a nasty little organization from the inside of a cave. Does Al-Qaeda pose an existential threat to America? No, of course it doesn’t.

And yet, hey, let’s all make-believe it does! And then all look the other way as terrorism incrementally becomes the boogeyman, and America incrementally becomes our daddy keeping us safe at night. The myth of complexity: we don’t know what’s best for us, because 9/11 plunged our unready world into chaos. Are those locks strong enough, daddy? Not yet. Are those walls high enough, daddy? Not yet. Can I sleep soundly, daddy? Not yet.

Instead of locks, though: 24/7 surveillance. Instead of walls: drone strikes in Pakistan. Imagine for a second if America were just one person – how would we describe him? How, at least, after every new military conquest? And every new attempt, at astronomical expense, to assert its control over others? Here, a few suggestions (cutting various amounts of slack). Top dog. Alpha male. Egomaniacal. Avaricious. Paranoid. Creepy. A bit of a dick.

Martin Luther King

Who knows? Maybe American doves may still carry the day, after all. Maybe a critical mass of Americans will tire – decisively – of the preemptive aggressiveness favored by the hawks. For sure, the many great leaps in America’s history far outnumber its stumbles – and for leads on doing better America need only look at the ideals upon which it was founded. Those certain unalienable Rights… Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

More prosaically, perhaps, Uncle Sam may just take more heed of what mom used to say, What goes around, comes around. If you want to be a great nation, act like one. If you want to be free, stop curtailing freedoms.

Martin Luther King - Washington Mall

I’m reminded, finally, of something I read about Martin Luther King recently. Following the example of Mahatma Gandhi, he framed the civil rights movement as a peaceful struggle, because:

“A taboo on violence, King inferred, prevents a movement from being corrupted by thugs and firebrands who are drawn to adventure and mayhem… By removing any pretext for legitimate retaliation by the enemy, it stays on the positive side of the moral ledger in the eyes of third parties… For the same reason, it divides the enemy, paring away supporters who find it increasingly uncomfortable to identify themselves with one-sided violence.”
(Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature)

Doing the right thing was the right thing. May we dare hope it can be again? How about it, America? Stay on the positive side of the moral ledger – and feel good about it.


Today’s post soundtracked by:

Scott 3

About newjonnytransit

Same as ever, only better.
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