In the Shadow of Lost Liberty
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 27, 2013
Parker Palmer has said, of public discourse, “Political civility is not about being polite to each other. It’s about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences.” With these words in mind I welcome you into an important debate of the common good.
Edward Snowden is in the news again this week. He is a former CIA employee and NSA contractor who disclosed classified details of several top-secret United States and British government mass surveillance programs to The Guardian in May 2013. He is currently living in Russia under temporary political asylum and is considered a fugitive from justice by American authorities, who have charged him with espionage and theft of government property
Snowden has been variously called a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a traitor, and a patriot. His release of the NSA material is considered the most significant leak in US history since the Pentagon Papers; indeed Daniel Ellsberg has said Snowden’s leak has been more significant. One obvious result has been the public debate that erupted and continues to roll through our public discourse over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.
A Pew Research study conducted this past June reported that a little over 50% of Americans believe it is acceptable for the government to track phone calls and e-mails without permission to fight terrorism.
What this tells me is that our nation is yet again divided on an issue of great importance.
The Fourth Amendment to the constitution, written as part of the first pack of amendments known as the Bill of Rights, states that people can expect their “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” will be secure against “unreasonable search and seizure.” So over 50% of our population is saying the current mass surveillance program of the NSA is not ‘unreasonable.’ But it goes even further than that. When search and seizure of this type of information is deemed reasonable, the amendment stipulates that a warrant is required, through probable cause, with details of where authorities may search and for what they are searching.
Maybe what the NSA is doing is considered beyond the scope of this constitutional amendment because telephones and computer e-mail are specifically named in the list of “persons, house, papers, and effects,” mentioned in the 1791 amendment wording. I suspect, however, that the courts have already cleaned up that interpretation, so I don’t think we’re talking about a technicality.
Ben Franklin quipped, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” I think the question facing us revolves around the adjectives ‘essential’ as it relates to liberty and ‘temporary’ as it relates to safety.
Liberty and freedom are among the deepest core principles of our country. The heart of our nation is centered in these values. At our best, what it means to be American is caught up in the values of liberty and freedom. We may argue with some of the nuances of that, with some of the weaknesses therein, but it irrefutable: a key element of the American identity is liberty and freedom.
As such, our form of government has been called an experiment in democracy. Our exercise in self-governance has always been experiment. In the face of the political climate of extremism and fear, it is helpful to reconsider our essential values and aims. Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, “The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government.”
Over the past two and a quarter centuries that we have been a country there have been a multitude of crises in which the core concept of democracy has been at stake. Aristotle said, “A democracy, when put to the strain, grows weak, and is supplanted by oligarchy.” An oligarchy is a government run by an elite few. Theocracy, plutocracy, and the various forms of dictatorship are all candidates for the types of government we have flirted with over the years. Some have argued we have already lost. I am not one of them.
Abraham Lincoln, a president who saw our country through a significant crisis to our democracy, said, “Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.” Frankly when I hear that half the country believes warrantless monitoring of private phone and e-mail communications is an acceptable infringement of our rights, I worry for our country. This isn’t just serving to root out the terrorists among us. It also perpetuates the culture of fear and division.
In some ways it is similar to the anti-Communist efforts of an earlier generation. A Powell Davies wrote, in his 1953 book The Urge to Persecute, about the red scare and the rounding up of suspected Communists in the 1950s. Mid way through his book he has a chapter titled “Must Freedom Protect its Enemies?” It is enlightening to read this inserting the word “terrorist” whenever you hear the word “communist”
Whenever it is pointed out that the methods of current investigations transgress American judicial principles and infringe upon the civil rights which are the very core of our national inheritance, it is protested that Communists are not entitled to the protection that the rest of us may claim, since they are conspiring to overthrow the system of government that provides it. Shall they be given the freedom to destroy our freedom? …
This protest should be carefully examined. It cannot lightly be brushed aside. For it is undoubtedly true that Communists are using our freedom with the intent of destroying it… The notion, held by some, that a free society is bound by its principles to give the shelter of its civil rights to a conspiracy against the society itself, even if the conspiracy is succeeding, is insupportable.
However, let the [phrase ‘even if the conspiracy is succeeding’] be fully noted. … The restrictions of freedom in order to protect it from its enemies all too easily becomes the withdrawal of freedom from its friends. Similarly, rights suspend because they are abused are soon lost to the entire society.
A. Powell Davies had the fight against McCarthyism and fear-mongering as a central element of his public ministry. And here, in a book he wrote on that topic, he is acknowledging that there are circumstances under which it makes sense to surrender portions of our liberty for the security of our greater liberty. Davies goes on to argue the point, however, that far too often the Committee on Un-American Activates turned up not evidence of actual Communists – instead they uncovered people whose opinions were not in line with the opinions of those in power. And soon non-conformity becomes akin to treason.
This summer President Obama said, while visiting Germany, “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany.” That number comes from NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander. Some fact checking has been done on that number and winnowing out the cases that were not focused against the United States and those cases dealing with individuals who provided “material support” to terrorism. And we’re left with about 13 threats. That’s still worth something – thirteen terrorist threats against the United States thwarted. Clearly there is an ‘effectiveness’ to the surveillance program. If only the NSA kept the scope within the purview of its original intent.
In the news today, the NSA is under fire for its surveillance program abroad. Not only are we doing the bulk mining of data on our own citizens, we are spying on the people and leaders of ally nations. Obviously we are spying on the nations and people we consider a threat as well. But our allies? The massive system of surveillance was sold to the American people as a necessary infringement of our liberty and privacy to stop the terrorist menace threatening our American values of freedom and liberty.
In an article by Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian yesterday I read:
Our reporting has revealed spying on conferences designed to negotiate economic agreements, the Organization of American States, oil companies, ministries that oversee mines and energy resources, the democratically elected leaders of allied states, and entire populations in those states.
Surely we have surpassed the original mandate necessitating this unconstitutional breach of our principles and values as Americans. It seems as though the NSA surveillance program is less about terrorism and more about our economic interests.
What are we to do with this? What is our role as citizens and participants in this great experiment in self-governance? It is a lot to think about. Thomas Paine once said, “When [people] yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.” Paying attention is, in itself, a significant action to take. Pay attention and engage with the issue out loud with other people. Parker Palmer has said, “Political civility is … about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences.”
Here I turn to a new book by Parker Palmer. Palmer is better known for his books about vocation and teaching and uncovering your true longing and hidden wholeness. But recently he turned those themes to the state of our country in a book entitled Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.
In the book Parker Palmer lifts up five Habits of the Heart that will help ‘heal the heart of democracy.’ Apropos of my focus this morning I will share with you the fourth habit in his list. The five are interconnected and I will need to find time soon to share them with you as a whole for they speak of creating community, holding tension, appreciating the ‘other,’ and recognizing we are all in this together. And they counter the focus on fear so prevalent in our society.
The fourth habit Palmer calls us to is to develop a sense of personal voice and agency. He writes:
Many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference. We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of as actors in a drama, and as a result we because adults who treat politics as a spectator sport.
Parker calls us to develop the habit of speaking up and participating, for to not do so will allow our democracy to atrophy from lack of use. The elite will keep hold of the reins of power so long as we remain complacent.
The issue at stake is not just the NSA’s mass surveillance program. The point is not that the program is or is not a reasonable and justifiable breach of our constitution. The point is not even how much of a liberty we are surrendering. The point is that We the People should be paying attention, should be holding the NSA and the rest of our government to account for how the program is used. I am not saying the government is wrong to behave as it has. I am saying we are wrong to let them behave thus without us really noticing or caring.
Democracy demands participation. Are we ready to let freedom and liberty slip from the center point of our country to be replaced by sensational entertainment and the expectation of cheap oil? Parker Palmer calls us to be actors in the drama of democracy. Lincoln claims that the spirit of liberty must be preserved lest we court despotism. And FDR said the people’s part of the bargain is to be “strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government.”
So wherever you find yourself coming down on the debate of how mass surveillance does or does not serve the common good, get informed and speak up. Liberty is always worth it.
In a world without end,
may it be so