Paradoxically, cult of privacy led us to NSA problems

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Photo by Cyberuly

The following post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Are you concerned about the National Security Agency gathering blanket data through cell phone companies and Internet activity? Everyone should be terrified. But why aren’t we?

The answer, of course, is the new nature of war we call terrorism, and the threat of terrorists who often hide in plain sight among us. A central reason we have a federal government is to provide for the common defense. But how does our government protect us in a world where enemies don’t often have an identifiable address, are embedded in any country on Earth and can even live next door to us?

It’s easy to see why an otherwise clear-cut case of unconstitutional powers begins to sound and feel reasonable. Normally, when a government official challenges our privacy by reminding us that innocent people have nothing to hide, we quickly remind that official that constitutional protections were made substantially for innocent people. But under the constant threat of terrorist attacks, in our fears, we begin to think that anyone at any time could be a terrorist. We succumb to fear and, as a result, we seek the secure comfort of government agencies – after all, the job of government is to protect us, isn’t it?

That answer is yes and no.

The federal government provides the common defense for a nation just as a local police force provides a common defense for a community. But those sorts of protective provisions do not exist in isolation, as if they’re independent of every other requirement upon every citizen to help maintain personal liberty and lasting freedom. Just because a local police force shares in the effort to protect a community doesn’t mean that we provide that force with every detail of our lives so it can preemptively stop crime. We don’t let that force live in our home to protect us– instead, we buy guns and security systems for our homes and assume major responsibility for our own protection. 

The same is true when it comes to the common defense of a nation. There are some protections that only a federal government can provide, but the American people assume major responsibility for our own protections and one of those major responsibilities is to know our neighbors who live in our communities – a task growing less and less likely in the age of individualism. It is no small irony that the cult of privacy developed in America over the last four decades has led to our current ills concerning the NSA.

Because of this cult of privacy, two brothers can explode bombs at the Boston Marathon and Americans look to government officials in amazement that some agency wasn’t prepared to stop that act of terrorism before it happened. I contend that absent this cult of privacy, living by the rules of traditional community, there is a good chance that some friend, some neighbor, would have actually intervened privately in the lives of those boys to prevent their atrocities. But, of course, a cult of privacy insists that everyone minds their own business to a fault.

What I’m describing is a perversion of community brought upon us by an ever-growing cult of privacy. The irony is that traditional ideas about community, wherein everyone knows everyone as a matter of voluntary association, keeps government out of our lives; whereas, the cult of privacy only invites it in. We have the NSA problem precisely because we’ve made a religion out of the right to privacy. The NSA is now our brother’s keeper because we are no longer.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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