A little thought experiment: You’ve gone to the big game in Knoxville along with, oh, 100,000 other fans. Mixed into that crowd will be a few pickpockets and more than a few obnoxious drunks and frat boys — but I repeat myself.
Observing this mass of people will be hundreds of police and security guards, some in plain clothes. In a darkened room somewhere, police will be monitoring the crowd through dozens of cameras.
So here’s the question: The police know the bad guys and troublemakers are out there, but the only way to find them is to look at the entire crowd. In their doing so, have you, an innocent, almost-sober University of Tennessee fan with nothing more than a traffic ticket on your record, had your Fourth Amendment rights violated?
I suspect you’ll say, well, I’m not happy about it, but given the bad things that we know would happen if the police weren’t here, I’ll live with it. If that’s your answer, then you’ll understand why I’m ambivalent about the National Security Agency’s data mining of phone and Internet records. I don’t like it. It scares me. But I’m not at all sure that the alternative isn’t worse.
In an unfree society, this isn’t a problem — the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must — but a free society must always perform the delicate balancing act between liberty and security. If the price of keeping pickpocketing at tolerable levels is that you, too, must be looked at with suspicion by the police, that’s a reasonable price to pay.
During World War II, censorship was accepted because it was understood that the stakes were so high that an extensive intrusion into our private correspondence was justified. But the end of the war ended the justification for censorship, and that was that.
But what of today? Does Islamic totalitarianism pose such an existential threat that our government should be allowed access to all of our electronic communications? And to do so indefinitely, until the end of a war that seems to have no end?
There is no incontrovertible answer to that question. To the civil liberties absolutists, the answer is clearly no. While they don’t dismiss the risk we would run by making this sort of surveillance illegal, with Benjamin Franklin they insist that a people that would trade their liberty for a little security will have neither. It’s an argument for which I have great sympathy.
But how would the families of the victims of 9/11 answer? After the fact, intelligence and law enforcement agencies were able to reconstruct a remarkably detailed picture of the hijackers — and realized, to their dismay, that they had all the dots, but no way to connect them other than dumb luck.
While lessons were learned and adjustments made to improve communications between agencies, the bottom line was that the spooks and cops realized a large dose of luck would still be needed to stop another attack.
So far we’ve been pretty lucky, excepting the Boston Marathon (full disclosure — a son was a spectator at that race, by the grace of God only never in danger).
But that does not mean we’ve been good, or at least good enough. Nor can we ever be. It’s a cliché because it’s true — the cops have to be right every time, the terrorists only have to be right once. We can’t expect the impossible.
In listening to the president defend the NSA’s program, I found myself in rare agreement with him. As profoundly worrying as it is, I can’t think of any other way to do what needs to be done to protect ourselves against a diffuse, loosely organized, but very dangerous Islamist threat. All things considered, the risk to liberty seems worth running.
But here’s the rub. In light of everything else we now know about the Obama administration — the gross and murderous incompetence in Benghazi, its subsequent coverup, Fast and Furious, Eric Holder’s AP and Fox News follies, the IRS’ chilling, systematic intimidation of conservative nonprofits, the accelerating accretion of power in Washington, and much more — I just don’t trust the man or the people around him to do the right thing with the immense power they have. Their sense of messianic self-righteousness is just too strong, while a sense of their own human limitations is lacking.
I find myself agreeing with The New York Times, former Obama apologist extraordinaire, that the president has lost all credibility. When you’ve lost credibility, you’ve lost the ability to govern a free nation.
So, for the sake of that nation, the question must be asked: Is it time for this president to let others carry on where he cannot?
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is president and general manager of Accurate Machine Products Corp. in Johnson City.