On NSA Spying, What’s With the Silence of the Lambs?

Please, let us have no more talk of “freedom-loving Americans.” That phrase is now completely inoperable. We might note that the Leader of the Free World spent the weekend in broiling Palm Springs trying to find an opening to plead with Mr. Xi about good behavior in cyberspace.

Our politics are so thoroughly polarized that the Left, including the Religious Left, is now extremely leery of speaking out against the breathtaking scope of surveillance taking place in the name of national security. The denunciatory words that flowed so freely during the reign of Bush the Younger now curdle in the throat. 

But I still want to say that we cannot afford to sit this one out, even though speaking out against the NSA’s activities at this time may well give a slight bump to conservative whining about an intrusive (more like clueless) IRS. The issue of Orwellian-scale data mining absolutely requires active, unbuttoned critique and protest. 

What the great Louis Brandeis called the “freedom to be left alone,” though nowhere spelled out in those words, still comprises the very core of the First Amendment, as our president—the constitutional law scholar—surely knows.

That freedom is now clearly gone. The president mewls in defense, “but we are leaving you alone: we’re not even actually listening.” That answer is nowhere near good enough, as (again) he surely knows. First-year law students can see how lame that answer is. The fact that the government is not now acting against me, on account of what it knows about my associations and beliefs, does not mean that I should sleep easy at night. 

It shouldn’t even be necessary to say any of this, obviously. That’s the part that most sickens: the absence of a community of active and intelligent and spirit-filled resistance, the sense that everyone is making sure their bed corners are properly turned down, the faint sound of heels clicking. 

Given gruesome past instances of prying, spying, and coercion of the conscience by state actors over centuries, one might imagine that American religious leadership would be up in arms at this moment. Our bloody history makes clear that all religion that is not state-dominated has a dog in this fight. But all we’re hearing from the religious sector so far has been a whimper, not a roar. It seems that the faithful also now live according to the economy of fear. 

Last week I took part in an interfaith delegation to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s L.A. office to urge her (via her staff) to do whatever she can to make the Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture public. As we were meeting on Thursday morning, news was breaking back East about Feinstein’s pitiful and shameful defense of FISA Court-authorized spying. If you suppose that our mutterings of protest about that seemed feeble and feckless under the circumstances, you would be correct. 

What we should have said, loud and clear, is that state secrecy and state torture are intimately connected, as any reality-tour of terror-laden 20th (and early 21st) century history will show. 

What we should have said is that relying on leaks (and leaks from people who will almost surely be prosecuted, at that) in order to have even basic information about what our government is up to is not what we thought Candidate Obama had in mind when he said he would replace Bush-era executive abuses with a new era of transparency. 

We don’t recall our chief executives, and we actually need this one to stand against the troglodytes in other arenas. But we on the religious side CAN do one thing: We can make it clear that we withdraw our moral approval—that we withdraw our moral consent—for someone who has so recklessly continued and expanded the trashing of constitutional protections regarding personal privacy.

As for the safety question, it’s still going to be good police work—not data mining—that actually keeps us safe. Bear in mind that they want the data because they now have the tools to collect and analyze it, not because they want to protect our security. How many times do we have to be warned about letting available technology set the agenda for the human experiment? 

The last century saw the rise of the Thought Police and their concomitant persecutions. Their tools may have been crude, but their methods of intimidation were ruthless. Do we suppose that today’s Thought Police, who have far more intrusive tools, will be more benign toward persons and groups whose behavior they regard as suspicious?

Let us be servile, if we must. But let us not be self-deceived about where this is going.

peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.