Tag Archives: Civil Liberties

Ferguson, hammers, and the NSA

There’s an old saying about how “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail.” I certainly believe there’s a lot of truth to this proposition. Recently, we’ve had a good (i.e. appalling) demonstration of it in Ferguson, Missouri: it sure seems like, on top of the multiple other problems at work, kitting out local police like shock troops encourages them to act like shock troops even when there’s no conceivable justification for behaving that way. (Which, for local police, is very nearly all the time.)

It occurs to me today that this is also a demonstration of why honest, ordinary citizens ought to be concerned about the NSA’s surveillance dragnet and associated programs (arbitrary lists, death drones, “extrajudicial executions,” etc.). The belief that it’s okay because they’re on “our side” seems awfully naive when you consider the fact that we (or people supposedly representing us) have built a massive organization and continually given its employees more and more and more tools for

  1. invading privacy,
  2. finding ways to make it look like someone could be connected with terrorism, and
  3. essentially treating the entire population as suspected criminals everywhere we go, every moment of our lives.

When you and everyone around you are armed in this way, how is it likely to shape your whole concept of what you and your organization do? Particularly when your organization (like the Ferguson cops) has become detached from and even contemptuous of direction by the community you are allegedly “serving?”

Seems to me that when most of your tools are a tyrant’s, everything and everyone is going to start looking like a rebel (which, from a tyrant’s perspective, means “a terrorist”) to be suppressed.

This, I might add, is one of the (many) things that makes it difficult for me to see any potential for reasoned dialogue with contemporary American conservatism. Listen to the US right*, and “government health care is tyranny! Taxes are tyranny! Public transportation is tyranny!” Everything, seemingly, is tyranny except large standing armies and unaccountable, omnipresent secret surveillance.

This.doesn’t.make.sense. All powerful organizations pose risks, and need to be kept in check, but the hammer-nail effect suggests that some risks ought to be considerably more frightening than others. A health-care bureaucracy that gets high on its own powers might… what? Treat the sick and injured? Or just be really, egregiously bureaucratic perhaps. That’s frustrating, and again, all of these programs ought to have an informed citizenry and our representatives closely managing them. But these agencies decried by conservatives as “tyranny!” are usually okay with that at least in principle. In contrast to the NSA, whose unchecked powers pose a risk categorically more dangerous than do “non-defense” programs, and who nonetheless aggressively oppose the whole idea of outside oversight.

Conservatives love to say “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” The metaphor fails in multiple ways. Additionally, though, there’s too little consideration of what happens when you teach a man to regard himself as an enforcer of vaguely defined “order” and everyone around him as potential threats thereto.

* There are exceptions, and bless them, but they aren’t a majority and aren’t setting their party’s agenda. Even with an opposition-party president whom they can seemingly oppose on anything else, whatever he does, a majority of congressional Republicans lined up to endorse leaving the military-surveillance complex unreformed.