The Sheep Look Up

Thanks to the media, scandals like the ones dogging the Obama administration are usually viewed through a Beltway lens -- how they will affect the current administration, the current Congress, whatever legislation or programs happen to be in the spotlight. The opinions of the country at large are not sought and would not be welcomed

The reverse is much the same. Most ordinary people -- those not directly involved in politics -- pay little attention to government scandals beyond their limited entertainment value. The details are generally esoteric, the relevance to daily life difficult to establish. Political scandals are usually ignored amid busy personal and work lives, serving only to once more reassert the ancient truism that all politicians are thieves.

But there exists a certain class of scandal that defies all the rules, that breaks down the barriers between the Beltway and the country at large. Teapot Dome and Watergate are among these. In the past week, the constellation of interrelated scandals -- Benghazi, the IRS, Justice, and NSA -- termed “scandalpalooza,” has achieved that status.

The synchronous nature of this megascandal has played a large role in fixing the attention of the public. Out of ineptitude or bad luck, or most likely a combination of the two, all of them have peaked within weeks of each other. For months, there has been no break from Obama scandals; when the latest one begins to pall, there arises a new revelation about another, and when that one fades, hit the dirt! … Here’s a completely new one out of nowhere!

Artillerymen have a technique called “time on target,” in which guns from different batteries are synchronized so that the rounds all hit a target simultaneously. Somewhere, something has called “time on target” on the Obama administration.

But it is the latest scandal involving the National Security Agency that has truly focused public attention. Benghazi had death under terrifying circumstances, the IRS scandal had the most feared federal agency on the rampage against innocent citizens, the Justice Department scandal had reporters targeted for doing their jobs. But it is the NSA scandal that has provided the context for all the others, that has brought them together as a bleak and brooding menace threatening American life as it has always been lived.

In this age of jihad, Americans understood that some adjustments to everyday habits had to be made. Much as they had accepted rationing during WW II, they acquiesced to the Patriot Act, to random searches, to tightened restrictions at airports (though the notorious “full-figure” scanners aroused serious opposition, particularly after it was learned that they were deliberately selected by the Transportation Safety Administration over a more discreet model. Ironically, the full-figure scanners are being phased out even as the NSA scandal erupts).  An effort by the New York Times to harass Bush administration monitoring of terror-related financial transactions went nowhere. Defense of the country has  its demands, and Americans have never been reluctant to play their part.

But this? Tracking every last phone call made in the entire country for months on end? Photographing every last piece of mail? Monitoring all e-mails? And credit-card transactions? None of this can be adequately justified by efforts to combat terror. In the public mind, it raises uneasy memories of teenage readings of The Trial and 1984, of cable reruns of The Prisoner, of that picture with that nice Will Smith being constantly shadowed by satellites.

What is this but the nightmare of political modernism? The constant watchers with cold, unsympathetic eyes. The men in trench coats falling in step as you leave your home. The knock on the door at three in the morning. The monster state crushing the individual, the “boot stamping on a human face forever.”

You cannot answer this with legalisms or minutiae. By pointing out that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts have been on the case since 1978, carefully overseeing all government surveillance programs, that the 1986 Electric Communications and Privacy Act (ECPA), the Patriot Act, and its supplementary legislation provided for further and even more rigorous safeguards. Or that the “concept of privacy” is “evolving” under the pressure of new technology, being “redefined” into something vaguer and more metaphysical that it was.

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.