Tuesday, June 11, 2013


When I was a kid in a small city in upstate New York, a Peeping Tom plagued our neighborhood.  My parents insisted that I close the blinds on my bedroom window before changing my clothes or getting ready for bed.  The thing about this Peeping Tom that made him particularly creepy was that he made no sound.  His stealth made him an urban legend in our neighborhood.  If a woman two blocks away hadn't looked up and seen his face in her window one evening, no one would know that he existed.

Human curiosity motivates human behavior, good and bad.  Our curiosity makes us explorers in all areas of life on this planet.  What we really love, though, is to find out how other people live.  Our rich storytelling tradition illustrates this, but also the darker side of that tradition: gossip and snooping.  We have laws that protect and support the storytelling tradition, and make snooping illegal.  Gossip continues to enjoy popularity until it strays into slander or libel.

Nation states, however, want to know what other nation states are doing, especially regarding them.  Espionage is government-sanctioned snooping.  We have no problem with that as long as the snooping occurs in another country to gather information about that country and its citizens.  For decades, we've lived with a friction between domestic privacy rights and domestic snooping.  J. Edgar Hoover, when he led the FBI, practically made it policy to snoop on people that aroused his suspicions.  Certain behavior could result in an FBI file on a citizen, even someone as naive and ignorant as a college student who writes letters to an American college friend studying in Moscow during the 1970's.

Some cultures crave and value stability and security over complete freedom and democracy.  Others enjoy freedom and democracy, reveling in the free-wheeling discourse that they produce, not thinking too much about stability and security until they are threatened.  The terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001 jolted Americans out of their daily lives and forced them to consider their security as a priority.  As a result, Congress passed The Patriot Act, an ironic name for legislation that allows the government to snoop on its citizens.

For the past 12 years, we've lived with law that ostensibly exists to aide law enforcement in the hunt for terrorists within our borders.  There have been people who were against that law, who warned of possible abuses, who wanted it to be restricted in its scope, and who are probably today nodding their heads and at least thinking "I told you so."  Recent revelations about the National Security Agency's untargeted and blanket accumulation of information from telephone companies and internet providers about phone usage and e-mails in the pursuit of potential terrorists appears to prove they were right.

What has surprised me about the NSA revelations is how shocked people have been by them.  I wonder what those people thought was being done to protect them and the country from potential terrorists?  At the same time, I'm really happy that we now know what is being done, even if that tips our hand a bit to potential terrorists.  It can perhaps send a strong message to them that they will find it difficult to operate within our borders, but it probably won't stop them from still carrying on their activities.  The NSA wasn't able to stop the Boston Marathon bombers.

What kind of culture are we here in the USA?  Do we crave and prefer stability and security?  Or can we tolerate the insecurity of our open society?  Would we have voted for the NSA's measures to protect us if they'd been put to us to vote on?  Or would we have voted for privacy rights?

The police finally caught that Peeping Tom that snooped around our neighborhood when I was kid.  They actually caught him in the act, thanks to an observant neighbor.  Closing my window blinds in the evening became a habit that endures to this day.  And I live on the top floor of an apartment building.....  

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