In 1944, wreckage of three 33-foot diameter balloons with Japanese writing on them was found in western Montana. The FBI later reported that 6,000 such balloons were released from Japan, equipped with incendiary devices to start wildfires in the United States and Canada.
No amount of high-tech spying could defend us from a terrorist whose delivery system is a paper balloon. In the dry forest, all a domestic terrorist needs is a box of matches.
In a free society, there can be no adequate defense against some threats to security. Larger scale threats that require planning, organization and finances can be detected by surveillance, and the extent to which that should be allowed is now the subject of open debate in our free country where such debate is allowed.
In Montana, a coalition of libertarians and civil libertarians in the recent legislative session enacted first of its kind legislation to require a probable cause warrant before government can monitor us through our cell phones and laptops. Will such laws prohibiting “big brother” from encroaching on privacy without reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity make any difference?
If privacy means anonymity, such laws will make no difference at all. Whenever we use Google we voluntarily give up our privacy. Search engines that are now part of our culture know where we live, what we buy, what we know, and when we die. Private companies own the data to the details of our lives. How can government be kept out of it? Privacy, as it existed a generation ago, is no longer possible for those who live normal lives today. The alternative is a hermit’s existence without so much as a telephone.
Even a hermit stepping into the open in many modern cities, does so under surveillance cameras.
Old world “snail mail” is also not shielded from today’s dragnet. U.S. Postal Service computers take pictures of the exterior of every piece of mail that passes through the system. As the increasingly engaged National Security Administration cannot legally examine the content of communications deemed suspicious in the collected mountain of “mega-data” without obtaining legal authorization, so too, posted letters can’t be opened without a warrant. Such faith-based protections, however, are cold comfort to increasing numbers on both the political left and right who don’t trust government with its self-regulated safeguards.
The reality, though, is that we have no choice but trust. To paraphrase classical conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, no matter the safeguards in any system, the ultimate decisions that determine our security as well as our freedom depend on the “prudence and uprightness” of the leaders we elect to make and administer our laws.
Unfortunately, history teaches us that the primal instinct of survival dominates the less fundamental need to be free. That was true before Burke, balloons and matchbooks, and continues in this time of unending “war on terror” when leader-led challenges to a free and open society are expanding along with technology.
What hasn’t changed is that our system of “government by the consent of the governed” remains the only legitimate system for selecting prudent and upright leaders. It has survived the tests of time and will be equal to the tests of today because it has to be. There is no other choice.
Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state and Senate president.
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