Alan Chartock: Tightrope act: Safety vs. privacy


GREAT BARRINGTON -- When the events of 9-11 occurred and the miscreants brought down the towers, the age of innocence was certainly over. America had come to a new place. It was then that each president decided that if it happened again, it would be on their watch, and they would get the blame. In fact, you might think the same thing if you were president.

So, all kinds of protections were put in place. Something called the Patriot Act was passed, complete with a secret court with secret judges, reminiscent of the star chambers of old. In fact, if you consult your Constitution there is a line in the Bill of Rights that reads, "The accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial."

To my mind, secret courts with secret judges are a violation of the public part of that sentence. That wasn't all, apparently. A whole bunch of other things were happening that were meant to protect us. The problem was that we had no idea what they were. Some, it could be argued, did not protect us but potentially hurt us.

Anyway, along came an obscure man named Edward Snowden who said that he was shocked to see what was happening to American civil liberties and he blew the whistle based on information he had access to. Right now there are those in this country who think that the guy is a hero and others who believe he is a traitor.

As for me, I tend to fall into the first group because I have always taught my students that you can't have a democracy in which citizens vote and opine their views unless those same citizens know what is going on. I know one thing: if Snowden had not blown the whistle we would not be having this debate right now. In fact, upon release of the information, people were shocked.

We all know that based on the Snowden revelations, it turns out our phone data were being collected by the National Security Administration (NSA). Added to the TV surveillance cameras that are everywhere, the idea that our freedoms of association and privacy are being violated has really taken hold among vast numbers of Americans.

However, when asked if security and freedom from the bad people beats out our privacy concerns, people still want to be protected from dirty bombs, poison gas and be assured of the security of their drinking water. When it comes to worrying about Big Brother watching them, a number of people believe that, "Hey, I didn't do anything wrong so I don't care."

Along comes the president and gives a major address and makes it clear that he understands all that Americans are feeling, and he pointed out that the FBI had his hero Martin Luther King under surveillance. That was a very important point because we all know that even if the president is right and the people at the NSA are just like us, how long can it be before another J. Edgar Hoover, or Dick Nixon comes along and decides that he'd like to know what Alan Chartock is up to because I wrote something that he didn't like?

In fact, it's high time that I finally get off my duff and ask the FBI for my file. Yes, I will guarantee that while the people who are in possession of this information may be Boy Scouts, inevitably someone will come along who will act more like Vladimir Putin or the present Chinese leadership than said Boy Scouts.

This puts President Obama in a really bad place. If something bad happens, he'll get blamed for it. I refer you to the killing of the ambassador in Benghazi. On the other hand he has to understand that alot of us are afraid of the potential misuse of Big Brother's information trove. So he cuts the baby in half, moves some people around and it looks like he's creating yet another agency to take possession of our information. Do you really think that will protect us? I'd hate to be president.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.


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