It will not be with guns.
If ever tyranny overtakes this land of the sometimes free and home of the intermittently brave, it probably won’t, contrary to the fever dreams of gun rights extremists, involve jack-booted government thugs rappelling down from black helicopters. Rather, it will involve changes to words on paper many have forgotten or never knew, changes that chip away until they strip away precious American freedoms.
It will involve a trade of sorts, an inducement to give up the reality of freedom for the illusion of security. Indeed, the bargain has already been struck.
That is the takeaway from the latest controversy to embroil the Obama administration. Yes, it is troubling to learn the National Security Agency has been running a secret program that reputedly gives it access to Americans’ web activity — emails, chats, pictures, video uploads — on such Internet behemoths as Google, Facebook and Apple. Yes, it is troubling to hear that Obama has routinely renewed a Bush-era program allowing the feds to more easily graze the “metadata” of phone activity (time and date, numbers dialed, etc.) of millions of Verizon customers.
But what is most troubling is that Americans are not particularly troubled by any of it. According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post, most of us — 56 percent — are OK with the monitoring of metadata, a process then-Sen. Joe Biden called “very, very intrusive” back in 2006.
According to the same poll, nearly half — 45 percent — also approve of allowing the government to track email content and other online activity. And 62 percent feel it is more important to investigate terrorist threats than to safeguard the right to privacy. That approval is consistent across party lines.
We are at war against terror, the thinking goes, so certain liberties must be sacrificed. It’s the same thing people said when similar issues arose under the Bush regime. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that the “war” is open-ended and mostly metaphorical, meaning that we can anticipate no formal surrender point at which our rights will be restored.
For what it’s worth, we’ve seen similar ambivalence toward the excess of another open-ended metaphorical conflict, the War on Drugs. It has also played havoc with basic civil rights, the courts essentially giving police free rein to stop whomever whenever without needing a warrant or a reason.
And never mind that this violates those words on paper many of us have forgotten or never knew — the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Never mind that it was designed specifically to bar government from peeking through the blinds or snatching you up on a whim. Never mind that it’s a bulwark against the unfettered power of the state.
People think tyranny will be imposed at the point of a gun. Paranoids look up in search of black helicopters. Meanwhile, the architecture of totalitarianism is put into place all around them, surveillance apparatus so intrusive as to stagger the imagination of Orwell himself.
The point is not that one has nothing to hide. The point is that whatever you have is none of the government’s business absent probable cause and a warrant. The point is that one should never repose unfettered power with the state.
We should know this, yet we fall for the same seductive con every time: We are afraid, but the state says it can make us safe. And all it will take is the surrender of a few small freedoms.
It makes you want to holler in frustration, especially since the promise is so false. Yes, the state can interdict a given terrorist plot, but even if it took every last freedom we have, it could not guarantee complete security. That is a plain truth with which we must make peace.
We will never be “safe.” But we just might, if we have the courage, be free.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at email@example.com.)
Photo of NSA headquarters via Wikimedia Commons