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The Apathy Inherent in the System

apathy-meh-graffiti

My latest for The Atlantic, “Why Should Congress and the Courts Care About Snooping If Citizens Don’t?” has posted. The gist is this:

While it’s true that ”the United States has the most expensive, elaborate, and multi-tiered intelligence oversight apparatus of any nation on Earth,” there is serious reason to doubt the vigor with which these institutions are doing their job. There’s very little resistance to intrusive programs if they’re done in the name of public safety or fighting terrorists.

[…]

Then again, it’s not at all clear that an informed Congress — or even informed intelligence committees — would matter. We’ve seen time and again in the almost dozen years since the 9/11 attacks an almost bipartisan deference to the executive. Wyden is in a tiny minority; most at least publicly side with McCain, Feinstein and others who see these programs as critical to protecting the Republic.

And, certainly, the American people themselves seem predisposed to trade privacy and liberty for even the illusion of safety, as evidenced by what we’ll put up with at airports and virtually every opinion poll on the subject. A solid majority (56 percent) in a Washington Post-Pew survey taken after the NSA story broke support the program and a whopping 62 percent “think [it] is more important right now for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy.”

[…]

[W]hether in matters of national security or even ordinary law enforcement, the courts have in recent decades bent over backwards to side with the executive branch’s interests in protecting the public and its officers, interpreting the protections of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and the right to privacy quite narrowly. On balance, the American public and its elected representatives approve.

Americans’ civil liberties are almost certainly threatened more by plainly transparent actions of police officers and other government agents carrying out the War on Terror and the War on Drugs than from NSA computers scanning our phone logs. Until we start caring about these things, however, it’s highly unlikely that our elected representatives will.

The argument is complex, over 1300 words down from a 1600 word draft and I hope you read the whole thing.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The argument is complex, over 1300 words down from a 1600 word draft and I hope you read the whole thing.

    I would but, 1300 words? In my present state of apathy, I just don’t care. 😉

    (later, when I have more time)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  2. stonetools says:

    Good article, James. Agree with it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. al-Ameda says:

    It’s not apathy, its the lack of a connection between what the negative consequences of unlimited data mining and could be and what Americans experience in their daily lives. Most Americans do not experience a negative effect from the data mining so they remain somewhat detached from it. That might change if if someone you knew got a visit from a federal agent who was at your door step based on a few phone calls you made .

    Finally, I find the current “outrage” to be interesting, especially in consideration of the fact that this type of wide spread data mining of telephone records has been going on at least since 2006 – and it was reported by all major newspapers then too.

    By the way, I completely support the Electronic Frontier Foundation in their efforts to rein in, or in some manner, put legal limits on the data mining.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. James Joyner says:

    @al-Ameda: As noted in the close, I’m more frustrated that Americans aren’t more outraged by common, everyday abuses of the state than I am with the NSA program.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  5. Tillman says:

    The harm to self-interest is the source of outrage. The drug war disproportionately targets minorities and thus avoids outrage (for the most part). This surveillance is so abstract, seeking patterns in the collection of millions of phone calls, it’s hard to really feel violated by it.

    All you have then is principled outrage, and most people don’t have strong principles.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  6. John D'Geek says:

    I’m reminded of Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. In it, he talks about the concentration camps from an insider’s point of view. One of the things that has always struck me is that the Jews knew what was going on when they were being hearded towards the trains, but they didn’t resist. Why? According to Frankl, it was because they convinced themselves that it couldn’t’ be that bad. (If you haven’t read this book, I highly suggest it).

    So, right now America is convincing itself that “it can’t be that bad” …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  7. CSK says:

    It may be too that what James is calling apathy is really resignation. People may say to themselves that there’s nothing they can do about any given situation, so why bother to get upset about it, or even think about it? Remember the old saying that “you can’t fight city hall?” It may apply to what people are thinking in this instance.

    And I agree with Tillman that the whole concept is too abstract for most to grasp.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. James Pearce says:

    The argument is complex, over 1300 words down from a 1600 word draft and I hope you read the whole thing.

    As Kit Carson would say, “Done so.”

    You know you could throw those missing 300 words up here. Unless they were a bunch of “Ums” and extraneous adverbs, of course.

    As to the content of the post, I’ve long held that Libertarianism (as a philosophy and a movement) is mostly useless. That’s not to say that it’s entirely useless, just that it becomes less useful the more abstract it gets.

    This is how we got the “drones killing Americans” stuff. This is how we get the “NSA computers find nothing useful in most people’s data – OMG” freakout. Meanwhile, code enforcement is looking through my fence…..

    The abstraction leads to distraction, and while I know the Libertarians have worked out philosophically why Google can mine data but the NSA can’t (or shouldn’t), it appears they still have work to do convincing the rest of us.

    Me, I don’t have any fealty to such a wobbly philosophy, so it’s an easy call. Mine my data. Please. Not only do I want an improved ad experience from Google, I also don’t want to be blown up in a terrorist attack.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  9. Fog says:

    We accepted asset forfeiture what, 30 years ago? If we didn’t get upset about a judge ruling that the government can legally seize property without even charging the owner with a crime, then why should they care what we think about any of it? Who is going to say “This far, and no farther?” – and make it stick?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    I agree. The drug war is an ongoing atrocity compared to which PRISM is a shrug-worthy nothing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. Moosebreath says:

    “Now you see the apathy inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being depressed.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. Ben says:

    @michael reynolds:

    On this we agree. Even though I’m supremely pissed off about PRISM, I still think the drug war is several orders of magnitude more damaging and offensive.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. Pinky says:

    I think your premise is wrong. I could be optimistic here, but I don’t think people are apathetic about giving up some of their privacy for security. I think they’ve accepted giving up some of their privacy for someone else’s security. One in a hundred thousand Americans is killed by terrorism (mostly due to one act). Just like a tiny fraction of kids are killed in mass shootings. We don’t want to be the ones who said “no” to something that could have saved them. It’s a decent instinct, and it’s probably one that’s been strengthened by the modern media as well as by our reduced encounters with death. We want to help others.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. Matt Bernius says:

    @Tillman:

    The harm to self-interest is the source of outrage. The drug war disproportionately targets minorities and thus avoids outrage (for the most part). This surveillance is so abstract, seeking patterns in the collection of millions of phone calls, it’s hard to really feel violated by it.

    THIS! Which is also why people don’t “care” about prison rape — for example. On the other hand, clearly part of the IRS “scandal” is due to the fact that everyone pictures themselves as in an adversarial relationship with the IRS.

    All you have then is principled outrage, and most people don’t have strong principles.

    +1 for a brilliant summation. I plan to steal that.

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