Roger L. Simon

Government Surveillance: the View from Misgav Am

It didn’t take the IRS scandal, the Benghazi debacle, and the surveillance of the press to make me think Barack Obama was one of the worst, if not the worst, president in American history. I already did.

But I’m not sure the latest scandal — the mass sweep of everyone’s metadata by the NSA — is everything it’s cracked up to be. Certainly, it’s not surprising. I rather yawned at the revelation that the comings and goings of all our emails, phone calls, texts, etc., were being recorded. I always assumed they were. And I always thought we were all leaving an indelible digital trail.

In fact, I had long since ceased putting my most serious private communications online or even making them over the phone, except in moments of haste or laziness, when I held my nose and went ahead with it. I imagine many of us have done that.

And this has little or nothing to do with Bush, Obama, or any politician. It’s the nature of technology. Privacy, as we once knew it, is over. We can put in strong checks and balances to prevent the improper exploitation of this information to bolster the provisions already in place, but we’re fighting the proverbial uphill battle — and not just because of Obama’s quasi-totalitarian behavior (although who would like the crew behind the IRS scandal peering into our email?).

Sad, but true…. but there is another side to it. I spent part of Sunday at Kibbutz Misgav Am in a part of the extreme north of Israel known as “The Finger.” This is because, like a finger, the kibbutz juts up into Lebanon so that parts of it are bordered by the Arab state on three sides. (Earlier in the day, I had driven an ATV right along that border.)

I stood in the lookout booth at the kibbutz high point with a spokesperson looking down at a Shiite village perhaps two hundred meters away. You could see yellow Hezbollah flags flying in front of the houses, one of them just yards from a small UN installation. To our right were some sculptures made from primitive Hezbollah mortars in previous wars. (By the way, later I saw several UN jeeps heading south on the main road. I couldn’t tell if they were Austrian soldiers who were reported leaving the Golan Heights to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war, but they looked European.)

The Shiite village houses, it was explained to me, had no glass in their windows, the better to get their weapons out fast to fire at the Israelis. Who wants the inconvenience of glass between you and the despised enemy? No matter that it snowed in winter in this part of Galilee. Hate is hate.

I’ll take the risk of being obvious and say, when you’re in Israel, you’re never very far from global conflagration. The number of religious lunatics out there is staggering. The Tsarnaev brothers may have been closer to the rule than the exception.

So we are in a serious conundrum. Much as our civil liberties are precious, so are our lives. And so is the civilization that preserves our freedoms. Ironically, as technology advances, we may depend more than ever on the morality and good judgement of our leaders.

Recent events have shown Barack Obama not to be strong in those areas — to put it mildly. Unfortunately, however, few politicians are. And it is extremely difficult to know in advance who will be until they have been tested. As with the case when we send emails with private information, we may simply have to hold our noses and go forward.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified image.)