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At What Price?


One of my best friends in college was a student from Pakistan, who came from a very traditional Muslim family, but who was, herself, very secular in terms of her beliefs — and a committed progressive, especially on the issue of human rights.  We’ve lost touch through the years, life being what it is and all, but I often think of her — and wonder if she was forced to go home and follow through with the arranged marriage that she feared or if she made it to law school in the US like she hoped to do, and was somehow able to stay here where she could make her own choices in a nation that she regarded as being a better opportunity for freedom and individual liberties than that of her homeland.

And then I wonder what she thinks of this nation today, if she did somehow manage to stay.  And some days when I think about this, I feel like weeping…at what our nation has been brought to in terms of lack of respect for the values that we used to hold up to the rest of the world as a beacon of hope…and at what we have all, every one of us to varying degrees, allowed our nation to become since 9/11.  A nation that I have loved my whole life for what it could be — for what we could all be.

Little by little, chip by chip by chip, away from what we ought to be.

William Arkin’s Early Warning Blog has a profoundly disturbing post today, regarding the seamless nature of electronic surveillance in today’s intelligence agencies, their capabilities — and the fact that the full price that we may pay for the implementation of these policies is not something that has either been thought through or debated.  And that long-term cost is enormous.  For all of us.

Despite urban legend that NSA surveillance is a news media crusade because the majority of Americans "approve" government surveillance to protect them from terrorists, a new USA Today/Gallup poll finds that almost two-thirds of Americans are concerned that the monitoring may signal other, not-yet-disclosed efforts to gather information on the general public.

This is the central question: Are all of these NSA ingestion and digestion programs merely more efficient efforts to apprehend criminals and terrorists in the digital age, or are they the building blocks of a new seamless surveillance culture?

The government’s position is that if you are "innocent," you have nothing to hide. It is a new version of ‘you are either with us or against us.’ Massive monitoring is of course meant to find terrorists; I completely believe that this is not some 1960’s enemies list politically motivated effort. But these post 9/11 programs signal a new and different problem.

People of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent and Muslims are potential terrorists, machine selected as "of interest."

Throw in there callers and travelers to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, recipients of wire transfers, purchasers of fertilizer, flight school attendees. These are the new guilty until proven innocent.

Innocent means of course mostly white, mostly Christian Americans who accept that the government knows best and that the national security state is only after the bad guys and would never apply its new found capacities in any illegitimate way.

The government and its new seamless surveillance culture are building a digital dividing line, even in our own society. The assumption is one of an enemy in our midst.

For someone as lilly white and Irish-American as I am, this poses no real threat. (Well, other than the fact that I likely piss off someone in the GOP at least once a day writing on this blog, that is…) But just because I’m not Muslim does not mean that this isn’t my problem. I am an American. They are Americans. There are difficult and provocative questions that need to be asked, answered, and re-asked and answered until we’ve run through the gamut of every side of these issues. And we need to know that this is being done in a thoughtful and profoundly humble way — because there are children, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers, aunts, uncles…Americans…who are being swept into a net of suspician solely based on the color of the skin or the faith of their ancestors. And for no other reason.

And I can think of nothing which is so profoundly un-American.

Let me be clear:  I am not saying that profiling does not have any place whatsoever in law enforcement.  But there must be some probable cause to establish the connection — the nexus, if you will — above and beyond "he has dark skin" or "she could be Muslim"  or "his name is Ishmael."  Or at least, I think so.

After 9/11, the West Wing aired an episode ("Isaac and Ishmael") which was at times a bit heavy-handed and slightly hokey, but which had one particular story thread in it which was profoundly disturbing and so well written and acted that the ending scene of it still sticks with me. 

In that story line, Leo discovers that a person who works in the West Wing of the White House has the same name as a person who is wanted for a particular terrorist plot which may be unfolding, and the resulting actions that are taken by Leo in doing what he thinks is best at the time to ensure safety in the White House is painful to watch — because it is out of character for Leo, and horribly jarring for the individual who is suspected and, ultimately, found to be innocent:

LEO: [stiffly] That’s the price you pay… for having the same physical features as criminals. That’s what I was gonna say.

ALI: [quietly] No kidding.

LEO: I’m sorry about that. Also about the crack I made about teaching Muslim women how to drive.

Ali looks down, taking this in. Leo, nervously, stiffly, his eyes wandering a bit, searches for the correct words.

LEO: I think if you talk to people who know me, they’d tell you that… that was unlike me, you know? We’re obviously all under, um… a greater than usual amount of… you know. And like you pointed out, with the shooting and everything…

A long silence falls between them. Ali looks up and searches Leo’s face.

LEO: Yeah. [nods slightly] All right. Well, that’s all.

Leo turns slowly and walks out into the hall. Ali turns back to his desk and continues working. Leo hesitates, then turns around.

LEO: Hey, kid…

Ali turns to look at Leo. The opening notes of "For What It’s Worth" by Buffalo Springfield begin.

LEO: [softly] Way to be back at your desk.

They stare at each other for a few moments. Leo turns and leaves. Ali turns slowly back to his desk.

There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…but what we need to be asking ourselves is, at what price?  Have we reached the point beyond which it is too dear to pay — not just for those of us who reached our limits long ago — but for those who were previously on board the "that’s the price you pay" train?

William Arkin points out that the American public’s support for incursions into their civil liberties by the Bush Administration with no oversight, seemingly no limitations and no forethought of long-term consequences is rapidly dissipating.

Political scientist Richard Eichenberg of Tufts University told USA Today that "the public’s tolerance for this sort of invasion of privacy may be topping out. It may be people are starting to say: ‘When is the other shoe going to drop? What else are they doing?’"

Right now, I don’t think that there is a "what else." But tomorrow, there could be an illegal immigrant tax and pay record monitoring tip-off system, a sexual predator and pornography attention algorithm, a drug dealing and buying behavior inconsistency profile.

Two-thirds of Americans polled by USA Today/Gallup say that are concerned that databases will identify innocent Americans as possible terrorism suspects.

With the new seamless surveillance culture, Americans are right to be concerned. In our zeal to identify an enemy in our midst, we have applied 1970’s laws and pre-digital age thinking to the problem of privacy and security. The end product is an assumption of two Americas — one innocent and one threatening. It is an assumption that itself enhances government power and facilitates greater abuse.

Today we discovered that the Bush Administration has been using its domestic spying capabilities to monitor who may be talking with the media — who might be criticizing the Administration or revealing secrets that they would rather keep hidden far back in the criminal and illegal crevices in which they were first hatched. Today, the media got a taste of what we have all worried about…who is next?

(And Hina, who attended Mt. Holyoke and was friends with Christy from Smith College, shoot me an e-mail.  We can talk about all things Downeaster Alexa, and macaroni and cheese made on the hot plate, and model UN.  Just in case someone who knows you reads the blog, I thought I’d take a shot.  I hope you are happy and well.)

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com