Most citizens would object to their government searching their homes without a warrant. If you were told that while you were at work, your government was coming into your home and rifling through without cause, you might be unsettled. You might even consider this a violation of your rights specifically and the Bill of Rights generally.
But what if your government, in its defence, said: “First of all, we’re searching everyone’s home, so you’re not being singled out. Second, we don’t connect your address to your name, so don’t worry about it. All we’re doing is searching every home in the United States, every day, without exception, and if we find something noteworthy, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, proceed as usual.”
Yes, it’s been strange to live in the USA in this, the era of the NSA. Not just because of the National Security Agency’s seemingly boundless and ever-more-invasive collection methods, but because, for the most part, Americans have been proceeding as usual. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, there’s been some outrage, and a flurry of lawsuits filed by organisations such as the ACLU, but most polls show about 50% of the population – including a shockingly high percentage of Democrats – find the NSA’s domestic spying programme more or less acceptable.
No doubt many moderate Democrats have been caught in a paralysis of cognitive dissonance. That is, on a gut level, this level of spying seems horrific and unconstitutional, but, then again, would President Obama, himself a constitutional scholar, actually endorse – much less expand – a domestic spying programme unless it were morally acceptable and constitutional? And thus moderates twist themselves into pretzels trying to defend, or at least allow, the NSA’s collections.
And so it has been up to an unlikely coalition to bang the drum. It surely has to be the first time the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tea Party have found themselves (somewhat) politically aligned. And in one of the more significant, if not unexpected, developments, Richard J Leon, a federal judge appointed by George W Bush, on Monday issued a 68-page decision denouncing the NSA’s surveillance as “Orwellian” and saying: “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analysing it without prior judicial approval.” He added: “Surely, such a programme infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the fourth amendment.”
To give the author, Dave Eggers, credit, he’s not describing Obama as a “constitutional scholar” (what a laugh), he’s describing what a hypothetical moderate Democrat would say.
This is the extent of his “scholarship”:
This is the point:
In an effort to illuminate the NSA’s effect on free expression, PEN America Centre recently surveyed its US members on their feelings about the NSA’s unbounded reach. The resulting report, “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives US Writers to Self-Censor,” reveals that 88% of the writers polled are troubled by the NSA’s surveillance programme, and that 24% have avoided certain topics in email and phone conversations. Most disturbingly, 16% of those answering the survey said they had abandoned a project given its sensitivity.
The Tea Party was sidelined in the 2012 election by IRS targeting, harassment, and stalling. Some people tried to participate in the system and were frustrated; others gave up entirely.
What does it mean to us? Are we under observation? Surveillance, not psychological. Probably. I wouldn’t blame you if you all cleared out. A “constitutional scholar” like Obama could find a reason to do you but good “on your behalf”.