It is natural to value safety and security, all the more so when we feel at risk. Terrorism around the world has become a real threat to our security and to our way of life. The temptation is strong to react emotionally: it's the flight or fight instinct which served us well thousands of years ago. At the risk of sounding counter-intuitive, I would suggest that now is the time instead to keep a cool head and examine what is most important to us.
When it came out that the government is monitoring our communications to a far greater extent than we knew before, a common theme among the people whose opinions were asked on the radio was: If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about. How I wish that were true!
But you see, there is a corollary to that: If he was arrested he must have done something wrong; they would not have arrested him if the hadn't. That is a highly dangerous assumption. I heard this from people in Argentina in 1976-77 when the military took over the government and began detaining people they considered terrorists without due process.
In fact, there had been a considerable amount of terrorist attacks in Argentina by left-wing socialist groups trying to topple the government and by right-wing death squads trying to eliminate them. The problem was real. When the military stepped in, people in general were glad that they were catching terrorists. They said: "They would not detain them if they weren't terrorists and if you're not a terrorist you have nothing to worry about." People were wrong on both counts. It came out later that the government exaggerated by tenfold their reports of the numbers of left-wing revolutionaries in activity. The participants in the right-wing death squads were never touched. The detainees were taken from their homes at 2:00 in the morning, placed in secret detention centers, tortured to confess and to provide "intelligence" and then killed. They took actual terrorists, their spouses, sympathizers, people who organized to find out what had happened to their sons and daughters, people "fingered" by others under torture who never had anything to do with anything. The society as a whole began to find out about all this progressively as their friends and family members were "disappeared" and never heard from again. People became fearful and, when at last they felt they had nothing to lose, began massive protests, finally driving the military out in 1983. It took the deaths of almost 20,000 people for whom there is definite documentation and more likely 30,000 people, most of whom were innocent of any crime, before the nightmare ended. The pain, thirty years later, is still great. People no longer say "If they were arrested they must have done something wrong." They realize they themselves could have got caught up in the disappearances and are fortunate to be alive now.
By contrast, in the 60's there were some small bands of revolutionaries operating in the heavy forests of north-central Argentina. They had attacked some police and government buildings and killed some people. They were hunted down, arrested, put in a regular jail, and indicted according to law. They were found guilty by due process and served their jail sentences. They are now productive members of the society. It's clear which of the two ways to deal with terrorism was best.
Perhaps our cavalier and acquiescent reaction to last week's news about the NSA could use an attitude adjustment. How will we bring all the new surveillance capabilities under due process of law? Isn't that American?
Check out my novel Angela 1: Starting Over at www.amazon.com/author/bedforddavid