Recently a friend confided to me, “I can no longer check my air baggage at the curbside. I cannot use the automatic e-ticket machine. I have to stand in line to get my seat assignment. Apparently my name is now on some kind of security list. All they would tell me was, ‘Because your birthday is July 4.’ I do not feel that this is anymore my country, the one I grew up to love.”
Neither he nor I have access to the mysteries of national security that would explain why a birthday can be a clue to the identity of a terrorist. But his new feeling about his country is duplicated in millions of others of us. Not long ago I was asked to write a foreword to a book by a German colleague who is very critical of the current foreign policies of the US government, including the role that religion seems to play in those policies. Over my lifetime I have written thousands of published pages. But in writing that short piece, for the first time I asked myself, “Will my stated agreement with most of this book bring me to the attention of government? Will the publication of this book endanger the tax exemptions of this Midwestern press?”
Pick up the phone these days, discover that the call is from Germany or South Africa, and the thought occurs, “Who is listening to this call, what NSA computer is programmed to pick up certain words in this international conversation?”
Strong civic habit in most Americans protests against these thoughts and feelings. I do not want to believe that my own government is the enemy of my freedom. Yet the feelings keep coming. In my training for the personal counseling side of the Protestant ministry, they taught me, Never argue with another person’s feelings. Tell someone, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” and the blunt response is likely to be, “But I do!”
American citizens are now caught in a security paradox: We feel insecure and expect the government to protect us, but its responses make us feel newly insecure. To acknowledge, understand and grapple with these conflicted feelings is a new challenge for most of us. We know what paranoia is. With the rational side of our brains we tell the other side: Not everyone in the world is out to destroy us. Not everyone in government is unworthy of our trust. Start distrusting everything a government says or does, and you live in a downward spiral that can lead to real madness. Hold on, citizen, things could be a lot worse.
Indeed they can. One horrible example is the latter years of the German Democratic Republic. Its Stasi–secret police–recruited up to half the population to spy on the other half. When the GDR collapsed, the drawers of Stasi files, placed end to end, would have extended about 120 miles. The files are now preserved in a Berlin archive and are accessible to any German who wants to look up his or her record from the 1949-90 era. Said one staff member of the archive in 1999, “The dissolution of trust among East Germans got so bad that no wife or husband, no parent or child, could trust that anything said in a conversation would not get reported. We no longer could talk to each other.”
Something in me–and many other Americans–wants to protest any such comparison. Surely, we say to ourselves, our society is not close to being that oppressive. Surely, whatever our political preferences, our government is not close to being that bad. Surely, surely… but the question keeps creeping in, Who knows? Why a July 4 birthday? Recently, a highly educated woman remarked, “These days I usually watch what I say. I never know who might be listening.” It is truly a new American experience. We who have luxuriated in laws protecting free speech are wondering if those laws really hold anymore.
Liberal individualism to the contrary, it would seem that freedom even to think freely needs the support of conversation with others. Without it, internal personal freedom may just shrink. After all, real totalitarianism aims at thought control. It clamps down on subversive communication.
Compared with many other peoples, modern Americans have little experience of real state terror. Perhaps it is typically American for us to worry about minor inconveniences at airports as well as small signs of overweening presidential power. Edmund Burke brought that American characteristic to the attention of the British Parliament in 1775, as he urged his colleagues to pay attention to the peculiar political spirit of the colonists. Americans, he warned, “augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”
Just so. Better to worry about the breeze before it becomes a hurricane.