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In June of this year the Guardian and the Washington Post were said to have brought shame to the Obama Administration and the National Security Agency (NSA) who, with the help of Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, were caught spying on both American and international citizens. The revelations have left people around the world questioning whether the Obama administration has taken the proper and necessary steps to protect Americans, or whether the effort for securitization has completely eclipsed civil liberties.
The Obama administration has now executed a dogged pursuit to capture the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the man at the heart of the revelations. In the months of revelations reported by the Guardian, it has become clear that the NSA operates a complex web of spying programs which allows it to intercept internet and telephone conversations from over a billion users from dozens of countries around the world. When asked why he leaked the information publicly, Snowden replied that it was because he believed that the government’s actions perpetuated an “existential threat to democracy”. He is now taking refuge in Moscow, threatened by an espionage charge (ironically) from the US government, and information has continued to be leaked.
So is he a traitor or a hero? Clearly, the US government thinks he is a traitor; a threat to its nation’s security. In accordance with this it has fought off allegations of a breach of the first and fourth amendments. Is Snowden within his democratic rights? Pragmatic governments will always build safeguards for times when tyranny poses a threat to domestic tranquility. James Madison, a Founding Father of America’s Constitutional framework urged caution declaring that:
“If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary… the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself… but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions”.
Madison warned of the very problem that plagues governments throughout history. When do the means to protect become so overbearing that it becomes necessary to restrain? Put simply: when has securitization gone too far?
Perhaps what we do not expect is the State’s security agenda to hone in on the personal lives of the people themselves. Rather, we expect the government to stand on the broad front of the State’s borders and protect the country from its enemies. We may expect (rightly or wrongly) for forces to go out traversing into far parts of the world protecting the nation’s interests internationally. The term small government indicates a government that fulfils two criteria: maintaining domestic order and protecting the nation against external threats. However, external threats are now breaking the barriers of normative war conduct. The heroic ‘M’ from the fictitious espionage world of James Bond, describes it appropriately:
“I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map, they aren’t nations. They are individuals. …. our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque!”
‘Fear’ is the key discriminatory feature. When a powerful governing body that has the power to spy on the intimate details of its citizens, and those citizens become the object of fear, the loss of civil liberties is catastrophic. How do we maintain security in today’s world? One slip when it comes to securing the lives of the people can be devastating. One mistake, one bomb planted on a bus or two planes flown into buildings, and in the eyes of the public, all previous terrorist attempt preventions might as well not have happened. Consider Donald Rumsfield’s words: “what do we do about unknown unknowns?”.
I do not condone the persecution of Mr. Snowden but it must be asked how do we maintain security in a world that is indeed ‘opaque’? Surely there must be a means to effectively secure our citizens more effectively or must we choose between our security and our freedom? If we don’t find this balance we risk allowing the accused to drown before judging them indeed innocent.