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The Sheep Look Up

You can’t make those arguments because, obviously enough, the safeguards didn’t work. If they had worked, nothing like this NSA program would have ever seen the light of day. If FISA courts had any real power, if government attorneys had any serious intention of serving the interests of the public, the NSA effort would have been limited to a paper proposal, like thousands of other crazy ideas. (For their own part, the conservative elite have waltzed their way into the dunce corner all by themselves with the argument that national security trumps everything. Memo to NRO, Commentary et al -- it doesn’t. It never has.)

Americans know full well what “privacy” is. They know it simply involves being left alone, particularly by those in power. They know that it does not “evolve” without turning into something else completely. Privacy is an aspect of human nature and, like marriage, parenthood, ownership of property, or self-defense, cannot be destroyed or modified by legislation or government activity. Those who attempt to do so are challenging the fountains of the vasty deep, and will be washed away in the attempt.

Involving as it does the NSA, it’s unlikely we will ever learn exactly who was behind this, who gave the orders, and what the precise purpose was. But in a way, that doesn’t matter. We know what the source is, and the rest we can guess.

In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham, progressive patriarch and founder of the doctrine of utilitarianism, came up the idea of the Panopticon, a prison built in an octagonal format in which the prisoners would be watched twenty-four hours a day from a central point. Bentham predicted all sorts of benefits from the Panopticon that don’t appear to spring logically from the idea.

He spent much of his later life attempting to interest the British and various local governments in building a Panoptican, without much in the way of success. But at the same time his ideas grew more grandiose, and he began picturing whole communities, perhaps even entire societies, based on the concept of total surveillance, with everyone watched constantly to assure they were acting according to plan.

So there’s nothing new about any of this. All that’s changed is the technology. Our modern Benthams think they have the answer in infotech, and the Internet. The old dream is almost within their grasp.

They are forgetting that every state in the West built on surveillance, from fascist Italy to Nazi Germany and the entire constellation of Marxist states, excepting only the cesspool that is Cuba, has been destroyed, and destroyed ignominiously.

And what about Obama, you ask? What about his role? Simply put: he sowed the wind.