All kinds of hazards can make us insecure. One possibility: Terrorists could blow you up. Another possibility: If a terrorist dials a wrong number and it’s yours, the National Security Agency may examine a list of all the people you called or who called you.
Most Americans appear willing to put up with the second possibility to improve their odds regarding the first, and that’s a rational response. Both ACLU and Tea Party folks, though, have reason to be concerned not so much about what’s happening now but what could happen down the road—and, judging from historical likelihood, probably will.
One token of God’s mercy to us is: No nuclear bombs dropped in almost 68 years. When in the history of man has a potent new weapon not been used for such a stretch of time? (That’s one reason secular Israelis are so concerned about Iranian nuclear bombs: They fear they’ll be chosen to break the worldwide winning streak.)
The question is also relevant to politics: When has a group in power not used potent weapons in an attempt to destroy its opposition? Big-time politicians all use opposition research, and consider how useful it is to penetrate your opponents’ networks! What restraints are there when corruption looms and belief in God dissipates?
American journalists used to understand this. From the 1730s through the 1840s, the most common macro-story (fancier word: meta-narrative) in American journalism was the corruption story, based on the Christian understanding that all sin and fall short of the glory of God: All. That’s why we developed a decentralized government.
Lately, we’ve forgotten that. My Acton Institute T-shirt plays off Lord John Acton’s famous saying about mankind: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In giving Washington more and more authority, we’ve sometimes fantasized that absolute power ennobles
Many authoritarian governments have opened mail, but now sophisticated programs can go through trillions of pieces of computerized information and find politically incorrect statements. Will those programs be put to use to suppress our freedoms? Highly unlikely, it seems, but at various time in the 20th century in Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and other totalitarian states, more people died because the wrong person dialed their number or sent them a letter than died from terrorist bombs.
Can that happen here? Never say never. Will it? I suspect not, if we remember three lessons:
- Don’t give your friends in government power that you wouldn’t want your enemies to have.
- Can’t live with civil libertarians, can’t live without them.