Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Love thy Neighbor

On the front page of Monday’s New York Times was an article on an abomination of a law strengthening the government’s eavesdropping abilities. Whatever your opinion on FISA and secret surveillance, there’s one part of the article that should infuriate everyone reading it. It should, but I’m sure it doesn’t; in fact, it’s even presented (by the very liberal Times) as a justification for the new legislation:
But he stressed that the objective of the new law is to give the government greater flexibility in focusing on foreign suspects overseas, not to go after Americans.
“It’s foreign, that’s the point,” Mr. Fratto said. “What you want to make sure is that you are getting the foreign target.”
Or, in the law’s own words, the National Security Agency no longer needs a warrant to perform electronic “surveillance directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States.”

White House spokesman Tony Fratto and the press are reassuring us with the information that it’s not us, it’s them. They’re trying to convince you that you have nothing to worry about, because you’re not the target of the wiretapping. Well I have news for you: if you’re not worried, you should be. Forget that the target only has to be “reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States,” (reasonable belief means many things to many people.) Forget that this is just another step expanding a surveillance net that will inevitably include you if it gets much bigger. Those are both great reasons to be worried – basically, the law does have the potential to hurt you and your fellow Americans. But if that’s why you’re worried, you’re missing my point. Like I said, you should also be very, very worried about the “it’s ok, it’s directed at foreigners” comment.

Or attitude, rather. America has been swept by a wave of patriotic xenophobia. Maybe it started after 9/11, with messages like “you’re either with us or against us” and propaganda like the USA PATRIOT Act. It progressed, and after a time it became acceptable to declare not-Americans enemy combatants and lock them up indefinitely. And now we think it’s ok to eavesdrop on anyone outside our sanctimonious borders.

We’re becoming ever more self-centered, selfish and intolerant. And we justify it by convincing ourselves that the rest of the world is full of evildoers out to get us. We have to look out for ourselves, because we’re in grave danger. (That’s what the terrorism alert level is there to remind us of.) Our fear of foreigners turns into hatred of foreigners, and with that we justify increasingly selfish actions.

The so-called “intelligence” legislation provides us with yet another example of this trend. The offending bill was passed on a Saturday by a house of representatives scrambling to get it signed into law before the August recess. Why? Not because everyone agreed it’s a great law and we need it. As a matter of fact, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had every ability to put off the vote until the fall or just let the bill die, said the legislation “does violence to the Constitution of the United States.” And yet she, and the other democrats opposed to the measure, allowed it to pass anyway. The general (and horribly logical) consensus on why this happened is that the Democrats were afraid of appearing weak on national security. I’ve never seen American fear and selfishness play out more clearly. The representatives are selfish – they want to be re-elected. So they pass this god-awful legislation to appease Americans who are scared and selfish (they want to protect themselves at the expense of the rest of the world.)

In defense of the little people, the behavior of our congressional representatives may be more selfish than the average American’s. That doesn’t mean they’re not serving for the good of their country, though. Allow me to explain: it takes a lot of effort to earn a position of power like a congressional seat. It also takes a lot of self-confidence. You have to convince a lot of people that they should vote for you. You have to convince them you’re the best. Self-centeredness is even embedded in the altruistic goal of serving for the good of the country. Only someone who believes they can do the job best will believe that. So yes, I think our representatives are significantly more self-centered than the average American.

So our representatives are working in their own self-interest and we’re selfishly sacrificing the rest of the world to protect ourselves. But at least we’re communally selfish, worried about our interests as a country, right? Wrong. Even ordinary Americans are individually selfish. For example: a bridge collapsed in Minnesota. It was a horrible tragedy. And now we are all very concerned that the bridges we drive over every day are going to collapse too. Basically, we’re worried it’s going to happen to us. It happened to some other innocent Americans who didn’t do anything wrong. And we all think, it could have been me…

But we’re not so worried about the people dying in flooding in India or famines in Africa, or, to get back on topic, about the Iranian and British civilians being secretly eavesdropped on. Because it isn’t happening to us.

Here’s a news flash, to everyone who thinks it’s ok, because it’s targeted against foreigners: it’s not us and them. It’s one world, to quote the Olympic slogan. And it’s a small world after all, to quote Disney. Technology is shrinking the world even more every day, and it’s becoming ever more dangerous for us to consider all non-Americans enemies. They’re not – they’re our neighbors.

Indulge my idealistic notions for a moment. Forget that America, as the number one superpower, should care about the rest of the world. Forget that our government of the people and for the people should care about those people, rather than its own political future. Even if you forget that, don’t you think you should care about your neighbor?

1 comment:

Nick J. Sciullo said...

This is an intersting post that touches on many important notions of legal significance. It also brings into the fray an exciting question: Where does love/friendship/a community ethic fit into the larger discourse of govenmental power or for that part the rebellious nature of the social critic?

For whom are we fighting? For what are we fighting? Understanding criticism as a means to bring people together and a method by which to advocate for people brings critical inquiry into the policy sphere. This is truly an intersting idea.