The US media and the pundit class, everywhere from the NYT to The Atlantic, are elegantly and beautifully wringing their sensitive hands over the NSA snooping scandal. Woe, alas and alackaday seems to be the reigning sentiment. Freedom is dead. Big Brother rules the roost.Outside the Beltway, however, a new Pew poll finds that a majority of the American public is rather nonchalant about the whole thing:
A majority of Americans—56%—say the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, though a substantial minority—41%—say it is unacceptable.The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post, conducted June 6-9 among 1,004 adults, finds no indications that last week’s revelations of the government’s collection of phone records and internet data have altered fundamental public views about the tradeoff between investigating possible terrorism and protecting personal privacy.
This data should only be surprising to those who don’t understand the deeply held Jacksonian instincts of many ordinary Americans. When their personal safety is on the line, their priority is to do whatever it takes to defeat the enemy with the minimal amount of lost life at home. If that means drones, or a little internet snooping, it’s worth it to avoid the loss of American life.Of course, not all Americans are Jacksonians, and even those who are don’t feel that way all the time. The poll found that 41 percent of Americans aren’t happy with telephone record tracking. Even more strikingly, 52 percent don’t think the government should be allowed to “monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks.” America is a big place with lots going on. Hamilton, Jefferson, and Wilson all have their followers, and the rise of the security state has spawned a kind of resurgence of civil liberties-based Jeffersonianism among both liberals and conservatives. But all told, a majority of Americans like what keeps them safe—drones, spying, and all.Here at Via Meadia, as usual we drift somewhere in the middle ground. We get the civil liberties concerns, and we also note that more than one aspiring tyrant in world history has used public fear to overthrow republican institutions. At the same time, the 51 percent of Americans who think the terror threat is serious enough to justify emergency measures aren’t panicky nut jobs to be dismissed with contempt.On issues like this one, the devil is usually in the details. Better congressional oversight, reviewing and perhaps tightening the legal safeguards in place, and strict controls over how the information is accessed need to be part of the answer. The attacks of 9/11 opened the door to a challenging world with difficult trade-offs and sticky new problems. The internet, a public space that many of us have grown used to thinking as private, raises difficult questions of privacy and law enforcement.At times like this we are glad we have an adversarial political system with competing parties and branches of government working to keep one another in check. As liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, and the three branches of government compete with one another, the ability of the government as a whole to crush public freedom in the name of security is limited by the rivalries built into the system. Even in this strange new age, America’s constitutional system of government remains the greatest bulwark of both our national security and our civil liberties.