I don't blame civil libertarians for being alarmed by revelations that the US Government is apparently tracking every electronic communication everywhere, although David Simon (of The Wire fame) makes a pretty solid argument (since partly revised) that the outrage has been overdone. I also recommend Kevin Drum's riposte to David Simon, and David Brooks' op-ed about the kind of society that produces a figure such as Edward Snowden, who leaked all this information to The Guardian.
My perspective is that the argument cannot simply be about whether governments are collecting too much information about us than is necessary or healthy in our democratic societies. We can't really address this problem without looking at the motives for such massive data sweeps. And in this case, the short answer is that governments are eroding our civil liberties because we asked them to.
I don't mean that we, the people, specifically directed our government to invade our electronic privacy. But we do elect the leaders who ultimately make such decisions, and we haven't exactly discouraged those politicians from believing that we take the terrorist threat very, very seriously indeed.
We (that is, citizens of the US and those of its war-on-terror allies such as Australia) are the ones who went on a decade-long freak-out about terrorism following 9/11 and the Bali bombing, even though, as one of David Simon's commenters said of the US, 'the whole thing is frightened-bunny-innumeracy. Since 2000, terrorists have killed about 3000 people in this country...falling out of beds has killed more, yet no war on beds, no war on slippery tubs and showers, no war on stairs'.
We are the ones who supported and re-elected governments that took part in the invasion and occupation of two foreign countries in a disastrous bid to curb terrorism. We are the ones who elected and re-elected governments that vastly increased the size and reach of domestic intelligence agencies*. And we are the ones who have meekly acquiesced to the costly, time consuming, irritating and almost entirely pointless security theatre that makes our airports such a nightmare.
What signals have we, as a people, ever sent our governments that we think they are overdoing it? When have we ever told our politicians that it is politically safe to ratchet down their descriptions of the threat? What have we done to ensure that politicians won't be labeled 'soft on terrorism' if they propose to reverse some of the excesses of the last decade?
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
* Disclosure: ASIO is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute.