The latest scandal story about the State Department coverup of a U.S. ambassador who was allegedly soliciting prostitutes in a public park brought two things to mind. The first, unbidden and unsupported, was that factions in the bureaucracy were at war with each other and the target of the one faction was Obama and the target of the other was She Who Must Not Be Named.
But that was speculation. The more tenable line of thought was a reminder that humans are fallible and often corrupt. This has always been true, so how do we live with ourselves? At first, simply by surviving the worst we could do to ourselves.
For much of history our ability to harm ourselves was fortunately limited by the crude nature of our means. But by the dawn of the 19th century it became obvious that the lack of technology alone could not forever protect us. Men were inventing more and more lethal devices. Dynamite, when it was first introduced, produced almost the same fear in futurists as the atomic bomb. It is widely believed that Alfred Nobel endowed the “Nobel Prize” to assuage a guilty conscience.
In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated, Le marchand de la mort est mort (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Alfred was disappointed with what he read and concerned with how he would be remembered.
The same kind of apocalyptic powers were ascribed to the machine gun, poison gas, and the bomber. In 1932, Stanley Baldwin wrote “the time has now come to an end when Great Britain can proceed with unilateral disarmament … the bomber will always get through.” But it remained for J. Robert Oppenheimer to put the thought in its iconic form. Looking on his own creation Oppenheimer described how he was mentally transported back to the ancient battlefields of the Bhagavad Gita to face the inevitable fruit of his inventiveness: “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
That was nearly 70 years ago and the world is still here. What happened to keep it going?
The answer, ironically, lies in corrupt, sinful, and foolish man himself. Somehow he found a way till now to put his creations under control. What he has not managed to achieve is to uninvent knowledge. We know how to make better explosives than Nobel, more efficient automatic weapons than Maxim, and now even the Pakistanis have their own Destroyers of Worlds. But we have also found ways to deal with them.
The paradox is that those who hate the West believe that its science destroyed Paradise. In their minds the most destructive moment in human history came when iron-armored men armed with guns set foot on the unspoiled New World. And their efforts since have been to uninvent technology, an impulse that lives in the Green Movement. “We are stardust, we are golden. And we’ve got to find our way back to the Garden.”
Except that perhaps the Garden was always full of weeds, and snakes too, lost the moment men — wherever they might have been — first discerned the difference between Good and Evil and chose Evil. And it is perhaps an even greater paradox that cafe leftism thinks even greater progress on the road back to Paradise can be obtained by purging the West of its remaining sense of the numinous. Kill morality and you kill evil. Perhaps they’ve got it backwards.
In truth the sense of the numinous is all that stands between us and destruction. The deep dark secret of the disarmament movement is that it never relied on the control of arms. It has always relied on the control of men. And the control of men relied upon the acceptance of taboos; in the submission to a kind of accepted set of values, in the belief in the odiousness of betrayal. The key to controlling the nuclear bomb lay in governance. It lay in the accountability of the possessors of these things to the general public.
There are dozens of nuclear-capable states in the world today. Canada, most of Western Europe, Australia, South Korea, Japan. But we are not worried about those countries, or worry only a little, because we trust them. They possess legitimacy, which is a mixture of popular acceptance, perceived responsibility, and the sense that they’ll keep their word.
The problem of North Korea is not a problem of technology. It is a problem of legitimacy.
In recent weeks the world has become aware of yet another wonder weapon. The full power of information technology has been revealed by reports detailing their use to capture nearly every aspect of modern communications. We have now glimpsed the virtual counterpart of the Destroyer of Worlds — the Destroyer of Words. And yet a moment’s reflection must reveal that we always knew that technology could do this. What we had not suspected was that the Obama administration would do this.
Many of those who are concerned about national security are appalled by the actions of the whistleblower now hiding in Hong Kong. Yet the damage he caused was not in revealing capability. Edward Snowden’s explosive payload was in ascribing intent. The warhead on the tip of the revelations was Barack Obama, or more precisely, Barack Obama’s lack of credibility. To understand this, we have to go back to Benghazi.
Prior to Benghazi, when Obama’s reputation for honesty was relatively unscathed, Snowden’s expose might have been treated like Julian Assange’s. “America has great power, but so what?” The president might still have escaped at that point by saying “trust me.” All that began to change with Benghazi.
The coverup of that incident, followed in quick succession by reports of the Associated Press being wiretapped, the IRS persecutions, the secret-email shenanigans, the EPA nonsense, etc., had progressively and perhaps fatally eroded the president’s credibility to the point that when the NSA was finally forced to admit to its activities it could not easily invoke legitimacy.
The government’s ultimate defense is to say “I work for you.” But that only works when people believe it. Unfortunately too many now believe the country works for Obama.
It was not ipso facto the NSA’s fault that the mistrust was so rife; their task is technical. The job of providing political acceptance and legitimacy belonged to the president and, more generally, to Washington. By slow degrees Washington has kept losing that trust; and the system, by keeping the surveillance programs black even in principle and perhaps lying about their very existence, bought the protection of secrecy at the expense of trust.
Washington forgot the main lesson from the nuclear age: that the existence of such powerful weaponry can never be protected by secrecy or technology. Their only defense in possession lies in legitimacy.
Snowden’s torpedo, unleashed perhaps by himself or by some third party, struck at the government’s most vulnerable joint, the weld between Washington and the governed.
Snowden said what many were already prepared to believe — even Obama’s liberal supporters — that the administration is a lying, corrupt, power-mad collection of unscrupulous men. Like a jilted woman, people didn’t believe Snowden because they knew him; they believed in Snowden because they knew Obama. The sense of betrayal may have even been more acute on the Left. In Snowden’s words: “I believed in Obama’s promises.” And how many of those said to themselves, “So did I and chose poorly”?
The solution to the current crisis of privacy is not technical. It is political. It cannot be found in uninventing the computer; only in creating institutions the public can trust to control such power, in the same way it trusts certain governments to control nuclear weapons.
Returning to the example with which this post started, the problem of ambassadors soliciting prostitutes cannot be solved by expecting human nature to change. Rather it must be found by accepting that we have to watch each other; and if the president can watch the people, then the people must reserve the right to watch the president. For there will always be ambassadors out for action in the park. The only question is whether there is a State Department that cares about stopping it.
The Founders knew this from the outset. A government will always be made up of men. And these men must never be allowed to become so powerful, so exalted, or to be considered so irreproachable that they are left alone to do as they please. Only one thing can stop the Destroyer of Words. Accountability has to be restored to the system. The principals responsible must go. If legitimacy is ever to be restored, those who have no more credibility can no longer lead it. That is inevitable. What remains is to watch it play out.