An effort to explain why FISA legislation is a bad thing

2 Feb

Forgetting for the moment the horrible idea of retroactivity for the telecom companies that spied on us, here’s the problem.

The FISA proposal would allow, as I understand it, virtually unchecked monitoring of all international communications. So, if a mother talks to her soldier son in Iraq, and tells him she wishes “this damn war would be over,” the US government will know about it. When my brother sent me emails from his trip to Paris, the US government would know about it.

So what’s the problem, some ask.

The simple answer is this: being monitored is no way to live. If we think we’re being monitored by the authorities, we modify our behavior.

Think I’m crazy? Imagine this scenario. You’re driving down the highway and see a police car. What’s the first thing you do? You look at your speedometer. If you’re going faster than you should, you apply your brakes. And after you pass the police officer, you probably look in your rear-view mirror to see if he’s turned his emergency lights on to come after you (or someone else). The worry isn’t just about the speeding ticket. Perhaps the officer is suspicious about your passengers. He has the authority (not necessarily legal) to delay you, ask questions, and look for things that confirm his suspicions. Even if you have nothing to hide, the officer may not think so. And he gets to call the shots. That’s why we try to avoid his attention on the road.

When we might be noticed by authority, we modify our behavior in hopes of avoiding notice. When we take a test in a room full of students, who among us never stared at the test paper harder when the proctor came by? Clearly, no one wants to be even suspected of cheating on a test, so one makes the effort to avoid being suspicious–even though one hasn’t cheated or even plans to cheat on the test.

When we might be monitored by the government, we do things to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. We don’t laugh, we don’t tell jokes (want to have a bad experience? tell a terrorist joke in the TSA line at the airport), we retreat inside and behave less than who we are. We don’t live fully, even for those few minutes.

We’ve all had the experience of being on the telephone with someone in the room when we couldn’t talk freely. “Yes, sure, that will be great” is all we can say lest we give an indication as to who is on the phone with us or what the topic of conversation is. Do we want to live like that all the time? If so, we’d better make sure the FISA legislation gets passed–but only after it’s amended to apply to all communications within the US too.

If that happens, patriots will weep. We will become what we opposed just a couple of decades ago: the American equivalent of the Soviet Union, a totalitarian government.

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