Friday, June 7, 2013

An Augustinian take on PRISM and the National Security State

Conor Friedersdorf pulls no punches in an article in The Atlantic -- "All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama". Here's a key paragraph:

To an increasing degree, we're counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils. Bush and Obama have built infrastructure any devil would lust after. Behold the items on an aspiring tyrant's checklist that they've provided their successors:
A precedent that allows the president to kill citizens in secret without prior judicial or legislative review
The power to detain prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial
Ongoing warrantless surveillance on millions of Americans accused of no wrongdoing, converted into a permanent database so that data of innocents spied upon in 2007 can be accessed in 2027
Using ethnic profiling to choose the targets of secret spying, as the NYPD did with John Brennan's blessing
Normalizing situations in which the law itself is secret -- and whatever mischief is hiding in those secret interpretations
The permissibility of droning to death people whose identities are not even known to those doing the killing
The ability to collect DNA swabs of people who have been arrested even if they haven't been convicted of anything
A torture program that could be restarted with an executive order
Even if you think Bush and Obama exercised those extraordinary powers responsibly, what makes you think every president would? How can anyone fail to see the huge potential for abuses?

Probably without meaning to Friedersdorf gives a very Augustinian argument about the corrupting influence sin has upon the best of men, and the best of motivations. He goes on to point out that as Americans we tend to overestimate our ability to preempt abuses of power. Could a burgeoning national security apparatus that started out as a well-intentioned attempt to keep us safe from terrorists turn out to be our undoing as a free society? I fervently hope not. But a biblical anthropology teaches us that trusting fallen humans to use power wisely -- in Friedersdorf's words counting on them to act like angels -- is a naive and dangerous posture.

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