Sweeping, indiscriminate condemnations of Big Government are, I believe, misguided. But some expressions of Big Government certainly do deserve to be resisted. Sweeping surveillance by the government is one of those expressions that have the most sinister potential. Many of us have not –or thought we hadn’t- lived under an all seeing eye of government. Yet what we didn’t know from experience we knew from news reports and fiction. Big Brother of Orwell’s 1984 was not national health care or social welfare programs. It was Big Surveillance first of all.
The revelations from Edward Snowden about the vast invasion of privacy being pursued by the National Security Agency (NSA) have caused quite a stir. Apparently, under the Patriot Act all the spying is perfectly legal. Still many Americans were not previously clear about the extent the government was allowed to snoop on emails and phone calls. Not surprisingly the intelligence community’s activities have been defended in the name of preserving our security. The government claims that the surveillance helped thwart numerous terrorist plots. However, these claims have not gone unquestioned.
It is past time that there be a lively debate in America about proper balance between privacy and civil liberties, on the one hand, and national security on the other. As Christians we should remember that there is no limit to the evil that can be justified in the name of national security. The very ones who orchestrated the crucifixion of Jesus argued, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Just as “love cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), the unrestrained pursuit of security sanctions a multitude of sins.
President Obama tried to assure the nation that the procedures guiding the intelligence gathering activities are “perfectly transparent,” a claim Politifact has determined is a “pants on fire” lie. In an effort to divert attention from the disturbing intrusive actions of the Big Surveillance arm of the government, Snowden has been villainized by both Democratic and Republican leaders. On the other hand, Louis Clark, Government Accountability Project president, contends that “Snowden is the target of those who wish to sweep his assertions under the rug and turn the media spotlight on him instead. We believe the focus needs to be on the revelations and their implications. History will eventually be on Snowden’s side.”
In a glaring display of partisan hypocrisy several recent polls have shown that Democrats are more likely to support the NSA intelligence-gathering program than Republicans. A Gallup poll, a Pew Research poll, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll have all found the same thing. Yet when in 2006 when George W. Bush was President a Pew poll found the Republicans were enthusiastically in support of the NSA scrutinizing phone calls and emails of suspected terrorists, 75% for and only 23% opposed. Only 37% of the Democrats supported the program while 61% found it unacceptable. For many people the party affiliation of the one occupying the Whitehouse more than clear principles seems to determine their support or opposition of the Big Surveillance arm of government.
Yet Big Surveillance coupled with Big Military is where suspicion about Big Government is most clearly justified. Many naively say, “I don’t care if the government knows what I’m doing. I have nothing to hide. I’m doing nothing wrong.” Yet in countless nations throughout the world there have been people who thought the same thing right before they were taken off to prison. In fact, recently it was disclosed that peaceful antiwar activists have been spied on by the government and have had their names placed on a domestic terrorist list.
These people have not done something wrong; they have done something very right. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” taught Jesus (Matthew 5:9). Yet they were deemed a threat by a government that wants no one to stand in the way when a national decision has been made for war. There is a very serious concern that dissent in America is in danger of being criminalized under anti-terrorist legislation as the definition of “material support” of terrorism is broadened. Imagining, “I’m doing nothing wrong,” will keep no one safe from a Big Surveillance/Big Military government that defines “wrong” as anything that is done contrary to “national interests.” Snowden’s disclosures should not be shrugged off as inconsequential. Now is the time to resist.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”
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