The Edward Snowden question

Reuters — U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defence contractor, is seen in this … Continued


Reuters — U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defence contractor, is seen in this still image taken from a video during an interview with the Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong June 6, 2013.

The American political debate over “privacy versus security” has been revived since the revelations of a classified, sweeping Internet and phone data mining surveillance program conducted by the NSA and FBI, reportedly leaked by Edward Snowden.

Is our privacy really at odds with our security? I would contend that privacy
or
security is a false premise. Privacy helps create real security, the security from political and even religious tyranny over our thoughts and actions. Privacy is a social space free from public oversight and interference, and it has been a key incubator for the forms of dissent that enable people to create movements that change their society for the better, in fact to reform it.

President Obama does seem to believe we as Americans have to chose between privacy and security, defending his administration’s vast surveillance efforts and citing the “trade-offs” between privacy and security. The president said, “I think it is important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. “You know, we are going to have to make some choices as a society.”

We do have to make choices as a society, and one important one is to reject the “privacy versus security” premise.

Privacy has helped incubate reform movements that are crucial to human freedom.

Freedom, including religious freedom, depends on protecting the right of dissent. That’s one of the main reasons protecting privacy is so crucial. Privacy means not being observed or interfered with by other people, and as such being able to function free of scrutiny, in this case, especially free of government scrutiny.

Few Christians may focus on it, but it is important to realize how often Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples “privately,” as in these verses from Luke 10:23-24: “Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

You can miss the deeper meaning of Jesus teaching the disciples privately unless you know the context in which Jesus taught. It is important to remember Jesus pursued his ministry under Roman military occupation, and with surveillance by Jewish Temple elites who cooperated with the Romans. These may very well have been the real “prophets and kings” to whom Jesus refers who “desired to see,” or hear. Was the original meaning of Jesus teaching “privately” to prevent ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ as in eavesdropping? It is not clear, of course, but the ministry of Jesus was considered dangerously subversive in his time, so it is no wonder that Jesus often taught the disciples “privately,” perhaps even to protect them from prying by political or religious elites.

On the other hand, some will argue, citing Romans 13:1-7, that we are not entitled, biblically speaking, to foster dissent from rulers, but in fact to “be submissive to the governing authorities” because authority “comes from God.” In this text, it seems like dissent from government policy would be disallowed per the Apostle Paul.

Context again is important in biblical interpretation. Biblical scholars have questioned whether Paul himself even wrote this section of Romans given the stylistic and content differences, and whether this section was instead added to protect Christian communities from further persecution by the Roman state. Let’s keep in mind that in the time when the Epistle to the Romans was written, the Emperor Nero ruled. Nero was known for his perverse and violent persecution of Christians. There might have been a good reason to add a section to the Epistle to the Romans. Perhaps Christians of the time wanted to provide evidence to those agents of Nero spying on Christian groups that they were not subversives and dangerous to the Roman state.

This is always the risk to reform movements, that a militarized, surveillance state will stifle their efforts at birth.

Many governments, from the Roman state to the U.S., have ugly track records of spying on people and movements, violating their privacy along the way.

The FBI kept Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. under constant surveillance, the Pentagon spied on peaceful anti-Vietnam War protestors, and the government had also been spying on the Occupy, a movement that protests against corruption, the unjust distribution of wealth in the country and the excessive influence of big corporations on U.S. policies.

Yet in each case, the country is better for such dissent being voiced and perhaps better government policy has prevailed because of such dissent. One can argue, in fact, that without the FBI’s spying on Dr. King, racist laws might arguably have been overturned sooner, that without the Pentagon’s pressures on the anti-war movement, the Vietnam War might have ended sooner, and if the peaceful Occupy protests had been subject to less suppression, our economy today might be more fair and just.

This does not mean that all dissenting groups have such noble motives as ending racism, war and poverty. And certainly not all dissenters are committed to non-violence.

Nevertheless, a free society must allow people to function with privacy in their daily lives even though such activity can pose a risk to others. A degree of policing function needs to be provided, of course, but widespread nets thrown over Internet communication or phone calls is an invitation to abuse whatever “safeguards” you may think you have provided.

Our privacy is essential for us as Americans to think and believe as we wish. Many Americans seem to be coming to that conclusion as well. A CNN/Time/ORC International poll, taken two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, shows a dramatic shift in attitudes about trading privacy for security. “After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 54 percent of Americans favored expanded government monitoring of cellphones and email. Now, the message is ‘hands off,’ said CNN polling director Keating Holland. “Only 38 percent said they favor expanding government monitoring of those forms of communication.” On the specific issue of giving up privacy for security, the poll showed only 34 percent of those under 50 said they were willing to give up privacy for security.

Perhaps Americans are starting to realize that trading security, especially a narrow ‘security from terrorism,’ for privacy does not keep us safe over the long term.

The key point is that whether in politics or in religion, privacy has functioned as a way dissenting groups could formulate their views and organize to challenge oppressive policies. I believe it has been, and in my view, will continue to be our real security from tyranny and the ultimate guarantor of democracy.

Let us take the president at his word and assume the efforts of his administration, as well as that of Congress, are directed toward “security” and protecting Americans.

We need to say, clearly, ‘thanks but no thanks,’ if we believe that security versus privacy is a false, and/or, dangerous choice.

President Obama has invited us all to debate the privacy versus security issue. Let’s really have this debate. It is crucial.

Thistlethwaite is author, most recently, of “#Occupy the Bible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.

  • AMERICANCITIZENSFIRST

    Know what the word TREASON means. The correct answer for a person found guilty by court for TREASON is DEATH.

  • Openletter2004

    Looked at closely,, one can see that EVERYTHING Paul, who started out life as Saul, and never met anyone that had met anyone that had met anyone that had met anyone that had met Jesus,, wrote directly contradicts what Jesus taught.

    The ONLY reason Emperor Constantine and the Catholic Pope put the writings of Paul into the “christian” bible was to get the idea that Kings, Queens and other hereditary rulers were “chosen by GOD” back into christianity so it could be used as a means of getting the masses to blindly obey the government, and therefore, the religious leaders. PERIOD!!

    That is the goal of the Ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel. That is the goal of the radical, fundamentalist, evangelical christacrats in the USA. That is the goal of the taliban, al Quida, and all the other “muslim” jihadists. They have been joined by Hindus and Buddhists in India and Indonisia. All want to use government to impose religious beliefs and practices on people, mostly women, against their will.

    At the same time, the communists, socialists, Marxists, progressives, liberals, and others are trying to use government to completely crush INDIVIDUAL rights to religious freedom.

    After all,, the real message of Jesus was that INDIVIDUALS were completely personally responsible for their own salvation. No more collective punishment by “god”. The laws of government were to be followed as long as those laws didn’t require the believer to violate the laws of “god”. BUT,, the laws of government were not to be used to punish sinners. Jesus taught separation of Church and State and INDIVIDUAL religious freedom. To do that the individual needs personal privacy.

  • MtVernonCannibisFarms

    the realization , the necessity , the final straw

    centuries of partisan combat diminished the power of the ballot resulting in temporary lords overseeing perpetual fiefdoms , and the abolition of heritable nobility was unable to prevent the citizenry from virtually reassuming the yoke of peasantry vainly appealing to deaf ears on bended knee .
    the PRISM revelation may spur the rest of the planet to develop their own Googles , Facebooks , and YouTubes with THEIR standards of Privacy to replace the tattered and defiled remnents established by our founders .

    and the irony that government has assumed authority (scotus11-393) over one of the last restraints on the grand experiment in self rule , consumer choice . More commonly known as freewill .

  • dean-the-Less

    Openletter2004,

    Where did you take your thological training? What type of revisionist thologian are you?
    Dean-the-Less

  • MtVernonCannibisFarms
  • datsneefa

    Snowden? The real question is what is our elected government going to do about it.

    They better hurry before we do it ourselves. 1776

  • Grant Schenck

    Clearly there is precedence for breaking the laws of the state when those laws are immoral and illegal. For example, would anyone argue that breaking the laws of Nazi Germany was immoral?

    I think that any reasonable constitutional lawyer could argue that the NSA’s domestic spying program is in violation of the constitution.

    If it the program is unconstitutional then this young man is to be commended for bravely putting his future on the line in order that we can be informed of what our government is doing to us.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Isn’t Obama supposed to be a brilliant Constitutional lawyer?

  • FYIColumbiaMD

    “I think that any reasonable constitutional lawyer could argue that the NSA’s domestic spying program is in violation of the constitution. ”

    Unlikely.

    The Courts have *already* ruled (Smith v. Maryland) that police retrieval of phone call metadata is not a ‘search’ as protected under the Constitution – you have *no* expectation of privacy with respect to such metadata.

    If the police went to the phone company today they would be able to get the same data that NSA did without the need for a warrant.

  • Anniesue1

    A very thoughtful article. Thank you. Americans tend to live so much “in the moment” that we forget history, and of course are therefore condemned to repeat it. I thank Snowden for starting what is a very healthy and long overdue debate about the tradeoffs at stake in the “security vs. privacy” debate.
    “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

  • DRJJJ

    We teach our kids a false religion every day in every public school across America and there is no right to dissent FYI, it’s called the macro evolution religion! The macro evolution faith movement taught to our kids as gospel is ruing the country too-turn on the news! It teaches we’re all just a pile of chemicals or pond scum that evolved by chance and luck with no designer with no hope for the future! So if we’re all just animals with no moral code other than do whatever feels good, let anarchy begin-turn on the news for the results, they’re in! Call it secularization of church and state when it comes to Christianity and then teach the states religion! That’s intellectually honest huh??

  • XVIIHailSkins

    In addition to being poorly written, this magnum opus of yours is now also off topic.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    When government is in the news every morning, noon and night, you know you’ve got one big problem. This whole place is beginning to sound like Boston, in the 1770′s, and the news is coming from within.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    From the posters, it seems like we might be ready to bring back the Praetorian Guard — change the government the quick way.

    Nah, really, I’m rather conservative and I think this whole issue is a non-issue. Everybody knows me, knows what I think, knows what I say — they don’t like me. But, that’s only because I play golf everyday, and still have a lot of money. If I go to the gulag, because of it, so be it. It’s been a great run. Actually, not caring for Obama hardly any way, I think he’s got this one right. After all, it was Bush that pushed for a stupid “Homeland Security” thing. He evidently did not believe our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, National Guard, CIA, FBI, U.S. Marshals, ATF, Sheriffs, and local police could defend us against Islamists, and other radicals. Oh, he of little faith. What a waste of money — except Booze-what’s-their-name does not agree.

  • Sarahfran

    I believe if you read Acts 15 you will find that Paul met with the Apostles, and presumably many others who knew Jesus when he returned to Jerusalem from Antioch. While some of Paul’s writings may or may not reflect the pure teachings of Jesus no reasonable bible reader can infer that “EVERYTHING” he wrote “contradicts Jesus” Similarly there is no reason to believe that a dozen letters totaling around 100 pages were added to the canon for the sake of 7 verses at the tail of one letter.
    I will not bother disputing your apparently magical knowledge of the goals of the orthodox Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Marxists, liberals etc. Suffice to say that I am no friend of fundamentalists, but I notice you left the Christian variety out of your screed.
    Your final paragraph is not only internally contradictory but reveals a kindergarten level of theology which is truly sad, I would recommend the works of Tripp York to you without any hope that you will read or understand them but with my prayers that you would.
    Strangely the only sentence I agree with you on is the last one, so perhaps there is hope for a meeting ground in our shared belief in the sanctity of personal discipleship.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    Openletter2004 – You’re close. Interesting, too, is that the Nicene Creed was written at the behest and under the direction of Constantine, at his palace, at Nicaea. He was a Pagan, and the bishops agreed to include the ancient Greek and Roman Pagan practices into the Jewish religion of Jesus. Not a bad thing — we are the result. Constantine’s concern was the continuation of the Empire, which one might agree was his great accomplishment — another thousand years.

    As the human being is the most unruly of species, almost any type rule will due.