People Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Their Governments, and Governments Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Their People

Citizenfour, the documentary directed by Laura Poitras, doesn’t include a lot of new information that hadn’t already been revealed in the articles about Edward Snowden’s leaks. That said, it’s a fascinating look at how the story was broken, a great reminder of what this is all about[1]. It’s also a pretty sure bet to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Snowden, whatever one thinks of him and his motivation, is an immediately interesting  character. There’s a certain implausibility that’s inherent to the story he’s trying to tell- Wait, so the U.S. government is collecting information on every phone call that goes through the country? Every single one? Emails? Text messages? But Snowden explains things very clearly and calmly.

Yet some of his behaviors seem straight out of a spy novel: unplugging his hotel room phone in case it’s bugged; typing passwords under a blanket in case there’s a video camera (aside from the one we’re watching him through) recording his keystrokes. This is all supposedly before the NSA knows what he’s done. There’s a scene where a fire alarm keeps going off in the Hong Kong hotel where Snowden meets with Poitras and reporter Glenn Greenwald, interrupting their conversation. The front desk says it’s just a test.

Uh-huh. Spooky.

All of this is a dystopian nightmare, isn’t it? Snowden’s living in 1984, or Adam Susan’s London. He’s up against a powerful government more than capable of crushing any dissent. He would be crazy not to be a bit paranoid.

“People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.” V, through Alan Moore, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson. It’s a nice sentiment. The people are the ones who are supposed to hold the reins and keep the government in check. The government had better watch out.

I think that’s the problem: It is watching out. It’s watching out on everybody.

As I’ve explained before, I’m skeptical of grand conspiracies about how the world really works. I think most people in government are decent, or, at the very least, make to quitting time so they can get the hell out of the office.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t get scared. After 9/11, everybody was scared. That’s what terrorism is supposed to do. But rather than taking a step back and putting their heightened emotions aside, people in government[2] reacted as if another major attack was imminent, and if they didn’t establish these programs, they’d never stop it.

Tell people something bad is going to happen, then make them wait for it.

Now no one wants to call off these programs, even if public sentiment turns against them. That’s because if the NSA stopped spying on everybody, and there were another terrorist attack, it would be seen as a reason for why we needed Big Brother in the first place.

But that’s making the same mistake as conspiracy theorists worried about false flag operations and FEMA concentration camp.[3] Most people have no desire to murder hundreds or thousands of people in the name of their religion or political ideology. By assuming that there will be another attack unless the government is watching everybody, the NSA’s paranoia inspires the paranoia of everyone else.

Smarter computer scientists and lawyers will debate the effectiveness and legality of the programs Snowden is talking about.[4] I think it’s telling, though, that in spite of the 4th Amendment, a long branch of case history has been opened up around just what constitutes an “unreasonable” search and seizure. I don’t think we should be basing a giant electronic surveilence program around a single weasel word.

What the government and the media should be talking about is why we shouldn’t be afraid. You have a greater chance of getting heart disease, being shot in Chicago, or being struck by lightning than being killed in a terrorist attack. Yes, there are people who want to do bad things out there, but we investigate violent criminals all the time. Let’s use the tools we already have.[5]

If it isn’t already clear, Citizenfour is an important, well made movie. You should see it.

  1. [1] The leaks about the NSA’s data mining and wiretaps came out over 18 months ago.
  2. [2] This was a bipartisan pants-wetting.
  3. [3] Those are real things, by the way. The conspiracy theorists. Not the false flag ops or concentration camps. They’re baloney.
  4. [4] For the record: effectiveness, not very; legality, dubious at best.
  5. [5] It’s also telling that most of the people on the receiving end of these new law enforcement tactics are suspected of drug crimes.
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