We begin learning about balance, if not understanding its significance, at an early age. First we grasp what it takes to sit up, then walk. Not long afterwards we forfeit training wheels without falling off two-wheel bikes. As adolescents, we start learning about the need for caution and moderation. Those hard-won lessons carry us into adulthood. Still, nothing has prepared us for the difficulty of determining where we stand, personally and nationally, on the balance required between an abundance of caution in matters of security and our fundamental right to privacy.
We fear the slippery slope of invasive practices and procedures and worry about the potential for disaster should too much power be vested in the wrong hands. At the same time, we recognize that we live in a newly dangerous world. Acts of terrorism are now part of our reality. Clearly it takes more ingenuity and watchfulness to protect people from hideous acts like that of 9/11 than it ever has. And we know it could happen again.
In an attempt to articulate my own position on the issue of surveillance I've been reading commentaries about the rationale for National Security Agency eavesdropping. One reasoned piece by Thomas Friedman appeared in a New York Times column. "I'm glad I live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties," he wrote. "What I cherish most about America is our open society." But, he added, "I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11."
Friedman falls on the side of government surveillance so long as it is "under constant judicial review." His fear is that "if one more 9/11 scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be much greater" because Americans would be all too ready to forgo privacy to make sure such an attack never happens again. His argument is compelling. "We don't live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real threats without using big data."
Still, living in a surveillance state gives many of us chills. As commentator Bill Keller pointed out in another New York Times op ed., "the N.S.A. data-mining is part of something much larger." He cites the fact that some law enforcement agencies amass DNA databanks "under the radar" and asks, "Do we want police agencies to have complete license to sample our DNA surreptitiously, or to share our most private biological information?" Britain, he says, is employing "wearable, night-vision cop-cams that police use to record"every restive crowd they encounter." New York City has introduced a Domain Awareness System that connects 3,000 cameras around the city, allowing police to cross-reference databases, a good thing, I suppose, if you're trying to find stolen cars or suspected terrorists. But "who watches the watchers?" And who is setting the rules for the use of drones in American airspace?
"The danger," Keller concludes, "is not surveillance per se. We have already decided that life on the grid entails a certain amount of intrusion." Nor is the danger secrecy, which is already operational in many settings ranging from embassies to hospitals. The danger, according to Keller, "is the absence of rigorous, independent regulation and vigilant oversight to keep potential abuses of power from becoming a real menace to our freedom," especially in a world in which our "system of checks and balances have not kept up with technology."
Reading opinions like these returns me to my own difficulty in deciding firmly where I stand on the surveillance issue. It's a classic "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand" dilemma. I certainly agree with those arguing that if the government is accessing data, it damn well better be for legitimate reasons of public safety. It also better be legal and well-supervised. And because abuses are hard to detect, vigilance is definitely called for. At the same time, future threats loom large and we must do what we can, within the frameworks of reason, legality, and America's commitment to civil liberties, to assure that we remain safe from disasters small and large.
Thinking about this, I wonder what the world I inhabit will look like fifty years from now. Will terrorism have been defeated somehow, or will privacy be surrendered in an effort to combat even more unimaginable scenarios than 9/11? Will "1984" seem a ridiculous fantasy in view of what real life has become? What will technology have wrought?
That's a question writer Jonathan Safran Foer posed at the commencement speech he gave recently at Middlebury College. "With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present," he told the graduating class. He was speaking about the changes information technology have wrought in our daily lives. Then he said, "It's not an either/or -- being "anti-technology' is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly "pro-technology' -- but a question of balance that our lives hang upon."
Balance. The thing that keeps us upright so that we don't fall over. The force that seeks caution, and fosters moderation. The one thing that may keep us all safe from excess, no matter where it originates.