We have gotten to a place where conspiracy theories and downright counterfactual assertions are taken as the truth when it comes to the government's legal, legitimate power to conduct surveillance in the interest of national security. Any assurances given by the law and by process to protect privacy and liberty is tossed aside as insufficient when it isn't derides as a lie. Yet, it is the libertarian side of the argument that fails to make a factual case: thus far any and all the programs unearthed by Snowden's defection have proven to be legal, Constitutional, and Congress and court-supervised, and no intentional abuse, illegality, negligence or fraud has been found.
We continue to hear counterfactual arguments made as fact: that the government could abuse its broad surveillance powers to, for example, track down bloggers in their PJs and reveal their porn browsing history in the press or blackmail people in some modern version of McCarthyism. Not that the libertarians have been able to show a single instance of this - not Rand Paul, not Glenn Greenwald, no one. Still, conspiracy theories that the government is in fact doing just that, and holding all of everyone's electronic communications in a big wearhouse in Utah (confirmed by the fact that a big data wearhouse merely exists in Utah) are widespread, and widely believed among the Left's strident libertarian communities.
Even though no instances of abuse has been discovered, we are still supposed to believe that the government is (or if you really want to give them credit, will be) abusing the legal authority. Even though the policy and legal justifications for drone strikes abroad have been clearly articulated, firing on an avowed, armed enemy of the United States is now considered a gross violation of the rights of a citizen and thus somehow an Obamacraft will soon hover one day next to your apartment window and make a precision strike on you.
If that isn't the essence of a tinfoil hat, I don't know what is. All conspiracy theories are based not on something that is being done, but a far fetched imagination of what could be done. In fact, that is what makes a conspiracy theory, a conspiracy theory. Consider all the other assertions of what the government could do with its powers as what it is doing:
- If you let the government provide health care to old people, they will kill old people and freedom will end (paraphrasing Ronald Reagan on Medicare).
- Letting a government panel impose reimbursement cuts for Medicare providers is the same as constituting an unelected death panel that will decide who lives and who dies under Obamacare.
- Giving the government the power to regulate health insurance will lead to rationed health care, socialized medicine and the death of America.
- The government will kill business if it has the power to impose labor standards and environmental standards and consequences of violating them on big business.
- The power to regulate air pollution will lead the government to choke off business.
- If you put in a place a process to legalize non-criminal undocumented immigrants, then surely, the government will exploit it and flood America with brown people who will take the jobs that rightly belong to you (i.e. white people).
- Give the government the power to recognize civil marriage between any two loving adults, and the government will use it to force churches to comply with gay marriage or lose their tax exemption.
- Let the government regulate gun ownership and they will come and raid your house and take away your guns.
- The government agency with the power to collect taxes (IRS) will use that power to target free speech and thus must be abolished.
Sure, the above examples are all policies that liberals love and conservatives hate, and thus the conspiracy theories on those usually originate from those wearing tinfoil hats on the Right. But the pattern is the same: whenever the government is given (at least somewhat) broad powers in any area, it fuels conspiracy theories based on how those powers could be abused rather than how they are used. The latest freakout over the Snowden leaks and the drone policy is much the same: the debate isn't based on what the government is doing so much as lofty questions and slippery slope arguments about what its abuse - though none shown in evidence - could do. That, definitionally, is the tinfoil hat mentality.
This isn't to say that we need no debates about civil liberties, national security, and the balance between them. But that debate must be informed by facts, not based on conspiracy theories. That debate - and that balance - is too important to be driven paranoia, tinfoil hats, and general anti-government sentiments. That debate - something the President is himself willing to have and affect policies with - cannot revolve around the idea that any powers that could potentially be abused must be refused to the government.
Our founders, and each generation that shaped America - always realized that any form of power can be abused. But just because police abuse is possible (and a reality) doesn't mean we do not need policing. Just because George Bush's FEMA made room for a second, man-made disaster in New Orleans doesn't mean that FEMA should be abolished. Just because George W. Bush abused his power to lead us into war does not mean that the President should not be the Commander in Chief of our armed forces.
For all the libertarian faux-love for the Constitution, the US Constitution did not create a weak federal government. The Constitution rose from the ashes of the failed experiment in a weak and powerless central government governed by a document known as the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution, in contrast to the Articles of Confederation created a strong federal government with significant if limited powers. That is applicable as much to regulating commerce as it is to national security. The Constitution granted the federal government awesome powers, and to ensure that such power is not abused, it built in safeguards - both in the form of federalism and checks and balances within the coequal branches of the federal government.
And so, when the government exercises its powers, our focus should be on the proper exercise of that power and the process of balancing executive authority with the checks of Congressional and judicial oversight. The focus should be on putting in place the checks and balances to ensure that the powers aren't abused. Our focus should not be on denying the essential powers altogether. As much as we would like to live in the fantasy that measures to maintain security are unnecessary and if we just let down our guards, peace and love will take over the world, we actually do live in a world with threats. As much as we would like to pretend that the Internet is only the means of the Arab Spring and movements of that nature, we cannot ignore that communications at the speed of light is also available to terrorists.
So here's my challenge to the Black Helicopter Left: take off your tinfoil hats. Join the real world. Join the real conversation about liberty and security, and focus on what is actually being done. If you are concerned about potential abuses, discuss the ways of preventing those abuses through checks and balances, not through handicapping law enforcement - and actually try to find out what checks and balances are currently available. Passion is a good thing, especially in defense of liberty. But we must be as passionate about discovering the facts and telling the whole truth as we are about our liberties, for the truth, too, is something worth being passionate about.