Freedom, Security and the Lessons of History

            Former Booz Allen Hamilton employee and National Security Agency (NSA) contract analyst Edward Snowden has created a furor concerning the implications of U.S. government actions to ensure security for Americans. He has done so by releasing classified material concerning NSA’s domestic surveillance (data capture) programs to the Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. Snowdon said he took this action, and also shared otherwise secret federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) orders, believing that the American government is engaged in undue scrutiny of its residents.

            Whatever his rationale for doing so, Snowden’s distribution of classified information and revelation of the strategy by which it was obtained has occasioned a variety of responses that, in this period of otherwise hyper-partisanship, have not always followed predictable party lines. Some observers on the left and right have feted him as a hero seeking to stop government tyrannizing and ongoing invasions of citizens’ privacy. These individuals apparently assume that neither the executive branch nor relevant Congressional committees nor the FISA Court are doing their assigned jobs to hold NSA accountable in its investigative efforts. Most who adopt this view also see the secrecy of the program as innately problematic. Others, again not along traditional party lines, have simply declared Snowden a traitor for his actions, on the view that the government’s activities are necessary and that he has compromised national security. For his part, President Obama has condemned the former contract employee’s choice to publish the information. But he has also said that he believes a national conversation concerning how best to protect Americans’ individual and collective interest in security and civil liberties, and whether a judicious balance is now being struck between them, represents an altogether appropriate turn. In the President’s view, a democratic polity should welcome just such a debate as Snowdon’s action has unleashed.

            Coincidentally, I recently read Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. As it happens, that famous French nobleman, author and originator of what we today call the essay, also lived during a tumultuous time of civic strife in which the issues of liberty and security were very much concerns in his native France. In particular, Montaigne served in public office in a period of sectarian civil war (1581-1589), and history teaches that ordinary people’s lives and liberties are frequently sacrificed to the claims of fanatics during such events.

            Indeed, Montaigne witnessed a society riven at the seams and characterized by the most heinous forms of murder, maiming, massacre and torture, often imposed on victims without evidence or based on rumor masquerading as sufficient rationale for loss of limb or life. During these years French society lost the ability to discipline its behavior in favor of freedom and allowed fear near complete license instead. Bakewell recounts that Montaigne’s contemporary, Jean Bodin,

… argued that, in crisis conditions such as these (supposed zealots of opposing views purportedly gathering or usurping power) standards of evidence must be lowered. Witchcraft was so serious, and so hard to detect using normal methods of proof, that society could not afford to adhere too much to ‘legal tidiness and normal procedures’ (p. 209).

            Bakewell summarizes the political purport of this sad chapter for France by remarking,

As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance (p. 209).

            I am struck by how apt this observation is as a description of our own nation’s response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Very quickly following those incidents and on the justification that our newly identified “enemy” was supremely dangerous and similarly resilient, the United States unilaterally embarked on a war (and perhaps arguably two), launched an international campaign of torture and rendition and curtailed the civil liberties of its people in a variety of ways including, most notably, via the USA Patriot Act. In short, the United States reacted to its own tragic occurrence just as “history has repeatedly suggested” was likely with such episodes and attacks, and the implications for the nation and the freedom of its citizens have likewise been predictable.

            So in this sense, and irrespective of the merits of Snowdon’s claims, a share of which have already been shown to be empirically false, regarding the specific character of our national government’s security efforts, perhaps this chapter will indeed lead to a vigorous conversation concerning what the nation’s citizens now believe to be a reasonable balance between their simultaneous desires for openness and freedom and for security. That discussion is long overdue and surely, as the President has suggested, constitutes a healthy and apt challenge for a democratic nation. One may hope that such a dialogue also will once and for all rid our public conversation of Bodin-like arguments concerning torture. As Montaigne experienced firsthand in the 1580s and our recent history has taught afresh, torture and the deprivation of rights both reflect and lend impetus to tyranny. Let’s do begin that civic conversation for which Snowdon’s action has called.