It’s only the summer of 2013, and we are already seeing presidential office seekers poking their heads out like the first buds of a political spring. On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton is planning her steps and Vice President Joe Biden envisions himself taking the baton from President Obama. As for Republicans, Ted Cruz, having only newly warmed his Senate seat from Texas, has been making friends in Iowa. It is no secret that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has eyes on the White House, as does New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and it seems we are likely to see a second run by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
But let us keep in mind that the race for the White House is not about the candidates; it’s about the country. And the most dangerous threat facing our country at this time is arguably the growing system of surveillance that is building an infrastructure for political abuse in the future.
Ever since the post-9/11 anthrax scare, the U.S. Post Service has been photographing every piece of mail that passes through its system. If I send you a letter with my return address on it, the government has a permanent record that we corresponded. Cameras are everywhere. Manhattan streets, your ATM, the gas pump, toll booths. As with the letter shots, the records remain for data mining long into the future. The National Security Agency is assembling a database of every phone call that anyone makes.
Tracking terrorists and criminals has never been easier. The upside of all this is that the authorities can catch bad guys fast. The extensive camera network in London led to quick identification and apprehension of the subway bombers in 2005. Here in America, the Boston Marathon bombers were also nabbed in short order, and other plots were snuffed out in their planning stages. But this comes at the cost of treating every citizen like a suspect.
Our government is no tyranny. But we are putting in place the infrastructure, the political architecture, for potential totalitarian rule in the future. Perhaps such technology-enabled tyranny will never come, but our Founders did not design our Constitution on the assumption that everything would be fine and that our leaders would always act honorably. Just the opposite: “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” (Federalist Papers No. 10). So they divided and dispersed power, provided checks and balances, and turned ambition against ambition to guard the public safety.
And we have now seen the potential for a politically ruthless administration to use the Internal Revenue Service or a regulatory agency as a political weapon against its adversaries and politically disfavored groups. There is no proof that the White House ordered the persecution of Tea Party organizations, but clearly the tools of tyranny are in place for use in the future when people may be less vigilant and leaders less restrained.
If securing ourselves against all terrorist attacks requires us to submit ourselves to the infrastructure of tyranny, then it is better to live dangerously and free than predictably secure with only the memory of freedom and dignity. This move toward tyranny has to stop. Which of our 2016 candidates will see the danger and confront it?