August 4, 2013

(h/t Heather the Amazing)

Alarming headlines blared from my various news feeds of how intelligence had picked up on a "serious" and "credible" threat from al Qaeda necessitating the closing of our embassies through out the Middle East.

And while these threats could be perfectly valid, it occurred to me that there was another unintended consequence for the government in this post-911 world: cynicism.

After being lied to by the government, witch hunts and having a non-critical media dutifully regurgitate Homeland Security propaganda, is it any wonder that Americans have record low confidence in our pillar institutions?

Of course not. So in the same month in which Bradley Manning is found guilty of espionage, Glenn Greenwald publishes an article on the NSA program XKeyscore and Edward Snowden is granted temporary asylum in Russia, it is a little too convenient that suddenly this great danger is uncovered by... monitoring al Qaeda communications.

"There is an awful lot of chatter out there," Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

He said the "chatter" - communications among terrorism suspects about the planning of a possible attack - was "very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11."

A National Security Agency surveillance program that electronically collects communications on cellphones and emails - known as intercepts - had helped gather intelligence about this threat, Chambliss said.

It was one of the NSA surveillance programs revealed by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden to media outlets.

Those programs "allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter," Chambliss said. "If we did not have these programs then we simply wouldn't be able to listen in on the bad guys."

Feeling nervous yet? Are you prepared to give up unquestioningly any semblance of privacy in the United States so that the NSA can monitor potential terrorist planning communications in Yemen? It makes little sense when held up in that light, yet that is clearly the framing the government (and their compliant allies in the media) want us to believe.

Ana Marie Cox:

I have a lot faith in Americans' inherent distaste for government intrusion into their lives. My theory of American civil rights has always been that we move forward, and sometime backward, to the exact degree that a majority of Americans can be convinced that the issue is fundamentally about being left alone to live one's life with minimum snooping or control from anyone. It's true for marriage equality, reproductive rights, providing a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, the tenacity of Second Amendment beliefs, and an argument can be made that the protection of voting rights can be manipulated to either side's advantage along these lines as well: we just don't like to see our fellow citizens hassled. (Conservatives show footage of Black Panthers at the polls, progressives harken back – not very far – the obstacles white legislators put in front of black voters.)

The problem with applying this theory to the right to private communication, virtual assembly, and expression is that we don't see the oppression very much. You cannot hold up a picture of someone being electronically spied on; even worse, you cannot illustrate the psychic damage and cowed sensibilities that come with the fear of being spied on. Undermining the cause further is that to champion civil liberties is, in a way, to champion inaction. Politicians cannot say, "I did this thing for you," they have to say, "I did not do this thing." Yes, to a certain slice of voters that is the exact message that propels them to the polls; a large majority of Americans what to see things happen.

Yes, advocates can hold up examples of the police power run amok. I think this even works, a little. More Americans see Edward Snowden as a "whistleblower" than a criminal, for instance. But it takes an act of muscular imagination to transfer his experience to one's own.

Compare this to the visceral reaction one has to images of a terrorist attack. The immediate sense that "it could have been me". And as for how terrorist attacks engender the desire for protection – a very particular kind of action by authorities. And the heroics stances that politicians can make when they say that they have saved you!

Unfortunately, the latest visceral images of that kind of terrorist attack was the Boston Marathon bombing, led by an individual that the government was warned about by foreign intelligence and still failed to stop. These scare tactics of protecting us from threats would be far more convincing if they worked.

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