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Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon

China is something of an enigma. Her economy is booming but there are signs that it is a bit of a paper empire. She has opened up her doors yet much happens behind the scenes. Most importantly, we still see her as an agency for repression, spying on her own people and regarding the West with a mixture of mistrust and envy. We see China as a repressive place to live.

Our own government is spying on us as well. Revelations from former NSA security contractor Edward Snowden inform us of a massive data mining venture in which not only is the government keeping track of who we’re calling but is actively listening in on those calls as well.

This is disappointing to say the least. Here in the United States we have a self-image of being the land of the free, but how free can we be when we are being listened to? We know that businesses are keeping track of our spending habits, but our government is reading our e-mails as well. Privacy has become an illusion. The solution to this, many feel, is to go off the grid; pay cash for purchases, discontinue the use of the Internet and of cell phones and keep as low a profile as possible.

Really, most of us have nothing to hide. The government may be listening but they’re not paying attention to us in all likelihood; they’ve simply got better things to do than to check on your drama. Still, it is a bit disturbing particularly in that our President seems to have tacitly supported this program. Ostensibly, it’s for our safety – after all, there are terrorists among us or so we’re told and in order to keep them from pulling off another 9-11, we’re going to have to give up some of our privacy in order to do it.

This is the crux of a question we’ve been asking ourselves since 2001; does our safety override our freedom? In a world in which we’re vulnerable to terrorism can we have an expectation of having the same freedoms we had before? Of course not. Most of us don’t mind having our bags x-rayed at airports and being made to wait in line in order to better insure that some wild-eyed douchebag with a cause and an idea doesn’t smuggle a bomb on our plane. It’s the price we pay for safety.

The question we have to ask ourselves however is how much freedom are we willing to give up in order to feel secure, and even more disturbing, whether there are those who are exploiting our need for safety for their own political or financial gains. The prime example of that is the Patriot Act.

You’ll remember that this act essentially created the Homeland Security Agency to combat domestic terrorism. It also gave law enforcement broad powers in ferreting out terrorism and foiling their plots to cause mass destruction and loss of life. Sounds good on paper, but it has also paved the way for excesses, including the suspension of due process for terrorism suspects and has directly led to the torture of prisoners by Americans and to the recent mess of the NSA examining the phone conversations of millions of law-abiding Americans.

I’m not saying that we are completely safe by any means and that we shouldn’t be vigilant, but the Patriot Act was supposed to have expired in 2005 but after extensions were quietly passed into law, the Act remains in effect at least until 2015. Some of those extensions were signed into law by President Obama. The problem is that the law was poorly written to begin with and received little scrutiny by Congress when it was hastily passed in the chaotic days following the World Trade Center attack. The potential for abuse by less scrupulous members of government is terrifying.

There comes a point when our zeal for protecting our citizens turns into a power grab. There comes a point where in doing so we cease being America and become something else. The aforementioned Edward Snowden was in Hong Kong when he made his revelations about the NSA and the United States has been keen on extraditing him back here to face charges of unlawfully divulging classified material and treason. He has since left Hong Kong for an (as of this writing) non-specified country without extradition treaties to the United States, possibly with the help of WikiLeaks (who have hailed him as a hero) and also possibly at the behest of Beijing, who apparently see releasing Snowden to the United States as a loss of face.

I find it troubling that the NSA has been monitoring citizens who have done nothing to warrant it. I find it more troubling that there are liberals defending it and conservatives conveniently ignoring that it started during the Bush era and are using it as a political ploy to further discredit the president; however I must say that I’m in rare agreement with my conservative friends in saying that Obama should be held accountable for allowing this policy to flourish under his watch, despite it’s clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. I just wish that some of them had been more vocal about it when Bush was doing it.

Conceivably some security functionary could read this very blog and decide that the writer poses a threat to American security and initiate surveillance on me and mine. My phone calls could be listened in on; my web searches could be scrutinized; my purchases could be analyzed. Does this impinge on my life much? Realistically, no – but it does make me uneasy that someone could be watching me merely for disagreeing with government policy.

Does that sound like America to you? Or does that sound more like China? Do we still have the right to speak our minds, or are we supposed to toe the party line? This is where the road to totalitarianism potentially begins. It behooves us to urge that this program be immediately brought to a close. I think that there are ways of protecting us from terrorists without having to resort to violating our rights; it may be harder but I think it is important that we don’t allow terrorism to turn this country into a police state, however good the intentions of our lawmakers and law enforcers might be. The risks are simply too great. We are the United States; we don’t have to become China in order to keep our citizens safe.