Being the good guy means getting hit first

I grew up during the Reagan ’80s, with Red Dawn and Rambo, with us vs. the Commies. Democracy versus the evil Soviet Union. Good stuff, were it true. Then I read Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy in 1997. It’s a historical recounting of some of the dictators and tyrants the United States has armed and supported where it served our international interests. It was my first, real inkling that maybe all the lessons I’d been taught about America universally being the good guy were bullshit.

What was so devastating to me about the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was that it finished the job of shattering any illusion I held that the United States was always the good guy. Most of the time we’re just like any other nation, protecting our interests even if the ethical costs stand against our professed national beliefs. I try not to feel too badly about that, because the theme of Deterring Democracy is that all nations abandon their professed morals sometimes. That’s just what nations do. We should expect no less from any nation state, no matter what documents govern its laws, or what its history is.

Understanding this didn’t make it any less painful to learn how the National Security Agency has turned the philosophy of “nations do what nations do” against its own people, and is conducting domestic surveillance against all of us. Edward Snowden’s disclosure of PRISM and the other programs being conducted by the NSA was shocking to me. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool cynic, now, when it comes to government, but this was beyond the pale.

Part of me wants to think that if President Obama hasn’t moved to dismantle these programs that there’s a reason, that actionable intelligence which has saved lives has been produced through these programs, that there’s something we don’t know which, if we did, might change minds about the legitimacy of these programs. Then I think about what defines the good guy.

The good guy takes the first punch to the face before he hits someone else. The good guy gives the other guy every last chance to prove he can be trusted, or to prove that he isn’t a threat, before the good guy takes action. Maintaining that moral high ground is what allows the good guy to punch back while still remaining the good guy. And the good guy commits no wrong by punching back, not by any rational system of ethics, as long as he stops using force as soon as he’s no longer under threat of being punched by the other guy anymore.

The invasion of Iraq was so devastating for me not only because it clearly had nothing to do with the attack on the World Trade Center, but that I let myself get swept up in the fever of nationalism which made the war possible. For a month or so, I reflected the absolute worst of what the nation state inspires from its citizens. When the anger faded I came around, and I remember the vociferous debates I had with close friends over the coming war. When we invaded Iraq, we were nothing more than the schoolyard bully beating up a kid and taking his lunch money. We were acting like the bad guy, and for a while I’d been cheering the bully on.

The NSA’s domestic surveillance program, oppressive surveillance on civilians, is the kind of thing I was raised to believe was commonplace in the Soviet Union. It is just as blatant a signifier of being “the bad guy” as a war of conquest. And this is when I have to separate “the government” from “the people” and reflect on the fact that even if we vote our government into power, the evil of our government’s actions does not necessarily reflect back upon the rest of us. It’s not “America” which is acting like the bad guy, but “the American government.”

A month or two ago, I got into a Twitter conversation about Edward Snowden and how I thought he was a hero. The apathetic responses I received were distressing to me, to put it politely.

“I assume the government is up to things like this,” was the flavor of these responses. I understand cynicism about abuses of government power. Using that cynicism to dismiss the importance of learning that widespread, blanket surveillance of the American people is taking place under the auspices of the NSA is something I do not understand. There’s a difference between suspecting something is up and knowing precisely what’s going on.

If not for Edward Snowden, those of us under surveillance in the United States wouldn’t know we were under surveillance. Snowden sacrificed living in his own country, probably for the rest of his life, in order to arm us all with the knowledge we needed to fight these domestic spying programs. Sacrifice for the greater good is the definition of heroism, isn’t it?

And isn’t the only way you can say that Snowden wasn’t sacrificing for the greater good is if you don’t believe that the notion of freedom, in its most abstract sense, is at the heart of what America is, more so than any other nation which has ever been?

I was in Boston on April 15th when two pressure cooker bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and on April 18th when the entire city was locked down after a running firefight broke out between the bombers and the police. Later I learned that the United States government had intelligence to give them cause to place the Tsarnaev brothers under surveillance. The attack could have been averted, but law enforcement agencies didn’t have the Tsarnaev brothers under surveillance.

Lack of domestic intelligence gathering was not what made the Marathon bombing possible. It’s more reasonable to believe that government inefficiency, lack of cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and a lack of resources were responsible, none of which I believe are addressed by PRISM and the other, related programs. They’re band-aids thrown over a systemic, open wound.

I look at America right now the way I imagine a parent looks disappointingly at a child who just isn’t trying hard enough, and is screwing up their future on account of it.

Other democracies have lived under the sort of threat we’re living under for decades without reactionary policies like PRISM coming to light. The NSA’s domestic spying programs are lazy shortcuts, nothing more. Even if dismantling these programs does put us under greater risk of attack in the short term because we’ve been relying on them, and we’ll need to go back to figuring out how to effectively and efficiently use the legal methods of domestic intelligence gathering which were available prior to the Patriot Act, which was another lazy shortcut, dismantling these NSA programs is still the right thing to do. We have the strength to pay the price of being the good guy, and I honestly think the world needs at least one nation with our power and reach to play that role.

The last time I protested over a political issue was during the gay marriage debate here in MA, when I participated in a rally in front of the State House. I’d like to think that protest was a small part towards helping the good guys win that fight.

I hope the protest against NSA domestic spying being held in Washington, D.C. on October 26th is a large part of helping the good guys win this fight:

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