“The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed – would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper — the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime is not a thing that can be concealed forever…. Big Brother is watching you.”
In 1949, following World War II and the rise of Communism, George Orwell wrote his masterwork, 1984. I read it as a teenager and remember approaching 1984 with some trepidation. But after the tumultuous protests and fears of government in the 70s, the Vietnam War was over and by 1989 Communism had fallen. The idea of governmental bugging devices watching our every move seemed unlikely.
So we come to 2013, almost 30 years after the target date for Orwell’s projected totalitarianism and the breaking NSA news. Sadly, now we know Big Brother doesn’t need to install monitoring devices in our homes. He can just monitor the ones we carry voluntarily. Big Brother may not be watching…but Big Brother apparently is listening. Can you hear me now?
I’ve got to admit to mixed feelings.
I went to Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of 9 11. I provided aid there. (My memoir post for the 10th anniversary is: https://joanneeddy.com/2011/09/11/in-the-ashes-a-9-11-remembrance-of-my-service-at-ground-zero/) I know what people felt like, what the FBI and military who were there, felt like. I know what I felt like. “Never again” was on everyone’s lips, including mine.
But when we passed the Patriot Act and then expanded the war to Iraq, I grew uneasy and ambivalent. That initial gut reaction of doing “whatever it took” to keep another attack from occurring was balanced by the fear that Al Quaeda could defeat us, our culture, our values, not from without but from within. We would voluntarily give up our freedoms to keep ourselves free…virtually the doublethink concept that concerned Orwell.
So I joined a request for writers to send in written pieces to protest the general direction we were going. The end of the poem I wrote was a quote from Walt Kelly with my fear that “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Given that attitude you may think I would have great sympathy for Edward Snowden, who grew up in Elizabeth City, NC, just a few miles from where I live. But again I am ambivalent. I can’t quite embrace calling him a hero.
I believe when you take an oath you keep it or you don’t take it. No doubt, Snowden agreed to a confidentiality pledge to gain access to classified documents. He was former CIA, so spying should have been routine. And did he take his complaints or concerns up the chain? Did he fight within that first? Based on his quotes I don’t hear evidence, yet, that he did that or that breaking his word even bothered him. That troubles me.
You see, my mother had CRYPTO clearance. Part of her job for the Air Force was to guard the encrypted launch codes for the SAC bombers which would have dropped atomic bombs on Russia in response to an attack by them. Her pledge to protect them was something she felt honor-bound to keep. It was a commitment she respected and she taught to me.
At the same time, without Snowden this surveillance would not have been revealed and millions upon millions of our phone records kept in a database somewhere without even our knowing. That is not a comfortable thought either. But is that the going price for safety? Do we pay for it with freedom and the loss of privacy?
Given the Boston Marathon bombing, and the need to try to uncover plots before they occur, it may be a price worth paying. I guess I just wish we had been told. We are a democracy, at least at this moment, and that means we the people should have some choice or say in the matter. Shouldn’t we at least give permission for Big Brother to listen? And yet, does the voluntary surrender of that privacy right make the outcome of its loss any less concerning? Those are questions troubling me, and that is how my mind is working…or not.
So as always I find I am staking out my position in the middle: not touting Snowden for his whistleblowing, if that is what it was, nor blindly defending my government either. I don’t know where you are, but for me, the grey area seems to be where I often live. Can you hear me now?