I have long held that Osama bin Laden did great damage to this country and brilliantly so. Of course the destruction of such high visibility targets resulting in the first substantive loss of life on our soil was in itself both shocking and meaningful. Causing destruction at the heart of our financial center, at the Pentagon and at a third unsuccessful target assumed to have been the Capital were meant to disrupt our economy and institutions. Turns out that we were better a disrupting our economy than he, though the attack did have a short-term impact. What bin Laden did achieve, and what terrorism is all about, was to alter our mindset, our national psyche. The Patriot Act and all the baggage that goes with it, are prime manifestations of that change — of, I would argue, our often-irrational paranoia and distraction.
The current flap over Angele Merkel's mobile is just the latest episode, another yellow caution light that something very basic has gone awry. Of course there is also a bit of disingenuous outrage being expressed by the Germans and the French though notably not by the Brits. David Cameron knows that spying is part of his country's governmental DNA much as it is part of our own. It is after all out of the tradition of real spying that the mega franchise of 007-James Bond was born, not to mention George Smiley, Jack Ryan and all the rest. Maybe it's an Anglo thing, but don't you wonder what a Claus von Snöwdenn or a Pierre Le Snowdin might have revealed about the prying ears and eyes of Berlin or Paris?
I'm in the midst of reading Stephen Kinser's, just published book about the brothers Dulles — Foster and Allen — scions of a family that gave us three State Secretaries (Foster being the third). According to Kinser, the first of these Foggy Bottom leaders John Watson Foster, was among the earliest American officials to promote intelligence gathering abroad and that was during his brief but momentous tenure back in 1892-3. His grandson Allen of course became our CIA director under Eisenhower and remained so into the early Kennedy days and the botched Bay of Pigs adventure. Allen Dulles spent virtually his whole career in or at the edge of spying. Yes, Chancellor Merkel, spying is nothing new nor sadly is eavesdropping on high-level government officials — think 007, not just 1600 Pennsylvania.
Don't get me wrong here. If the United States is listening to the telephone conversations of Ms. Merkel or any other official foreign or domestic, not to mention any of us, it is both deplorable and very worrisome. I just want to lend some perspective to this headline grabbing information, the fact that it is hardly anything new. More important, being disingenuous about it can't only be said of the complaining officials. You and I may deplore invasions of privacy but are absolutely hooked on Bond, Smiley, Ryan and all the rest. True Jack Kennedy loved Ian Fleming’s books but it is we who have spent billions of dollars and hours supporting him and the likes of John le Carré, Tom Clancy and the industry that thrives on telling spy stories. Their protagonists are our heroes and so we have real skin in this game, in our acceptance we are co-conspirators.
With that in mind, let's return to the damage done to our psyche and consequently our acquiescence to the Patriot Act and all that it symbolizes. After all, the surveillance society that has come to light and captured our attention since Edward Snowden dropped his bombshell of classified documents was born out of our reaction to what happened on September 11, 2001. At the very least, that invasion and the multiple acts of terror that preceded it and continue to this day are used to justify the intrusions. And what troubles many of us most is not that they began (probably more accurately intensified) in the Bush-Cheney years, but that, if anything, they seem to have accelerated under Barack Obama.
That the man who opposed the Iraq War could become such a strong advocate of invasive covert action and also would escalate the lethal use of drones seems so counterintuitive. But it isn't the first time that a Democrat whose party is routinely characterized as being weak on security has taken that path. It was those Dulles brothers who originally got us involved in Viet Nam after the French were defeated there in the late 1950s, but it was Kennedy and especially Lyndon Johnson who escalated the conflict in the decade that followed. Why does that happen? Is there a strong psychological component, a need to prove their own and their party's machismo? Does politics come heavily into play? I think the answer to all those questions is undoubtedly yes. But, Freud notwithstanding, that doesn't let them off the hook.
It's clear in looking at the President's approach to Syria and his obvious earlier reluctance to move on Kaddafi, that he is deeply wary of Iraq or Afghanistan-like interventions. But anything that comes under the generalized umbrella of combatting terrorism is another matter altogether. Here showing weakness seems no option, not merely because of the Republican opposition but because Americans at large have bought into the proposition that "bin Ladenism" must be thwarted, regardless of the cost. The problem is that we Americans and the government that reflects us seem not to have truly assessed that cost, most especially the non-monetary price being paid. We haven't balanced security and freedom, security and democratic ideals. We're too caught up in the paranoia and, yes, in the 007 romance of it all.
Eavesdropping on a friendly head of state's mobile — what were they thinking, what were we not thinking? The first goes to judgment, the second to our effectively shutting our eyes and ears to what should be obvious. The current problems with The Affordable Care\ website are troubling. There are countless websites that we use daily that work perfectly (or close to perfectly), but many if not all of them got off to their own now forgotten rocky start. They were fixed and so will HealthCare.gov. The surveillance breakdown — doing what we can rather than what we should — is vastly more serious.
Edward Snowden's story has evolved significantly over these past months. I judged him to be more hero than villain and his actions in exposing our overreach remain a service, albeit a costly and painful one. There still is a "don't blame the messenger" aspect to it. Even so, it's clear that what he revealed is of much greater diplomatic consequence — more damaging — than the document dump of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. It makes the extent of her punishment all the more questionable. That Snowden ended up In Russia, the country of the KGB (whatever it's called today) where he would undoubtedly be shot for his whistle blowing, is, to say the least, mystifying. He may not, as he claims, have brought any classified documents with him, but he still has been directing their release from his new address.
But Snowden is not the issue and that others may also engage in spying is no excuse. The Obama administration has done some excellent things, Affordable Care among them, and continues to do them. I can only hope that Democrats will somehow retake the House and remain in control of the Senate next year. That should result in some important progress, for example, on immigration reform. But, as President Obama is fond of saying, there are some things we can do today, at this moment. These things lie in his hands. We've taken a very wrong turn on matters of surveillance and also in the use of drones in foreign lands. We, and I include we the citizens, have lost our way and it is now time to find a truer road, to get back on the track we claim to be our own.