More thoughts on security and privacy

>> Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Yesterday I had some thoughts about the distinction between liberty and privacy in the context of what government knows about the citizenry. Today, timed perfectly as if to illustrate some of what I was trying to get at, I find Digby pointing out the latest bit of inconsistent nonsense from Ayn Rand devotee Rand Paul. Apparently Senator Paul draws a sharp line against civil liberties when it comes to the finer points of free speech and free association, telling Sean Hannity's radio audience:

I’m not for profiling people on the color of their skin, or on their religion, but I would take into account where they’ve been traveling and perhaps, you might have to indirectly take into account whether or not they’ve been going to radical political speeches by religious leaders. It wouldn’t be that they are Islamic. But if someone is attending speeches from someone who is promoting the violent overthrow of our government, that’s really an offense that we should be going after—they should be deported or put in prison.

Following up on yesterday's blog post: this is exactly the kind of thing I shouldn't care about having publicized and shouldn't have to care about the government or anybody else knowing about. What should concern me is something Steve mentioned in a comment to yesterday's piece:

For me, it's not so much of what people/government knows about me, but my question of what they then infer from what they know. [emphasis added]

Exactly. Senator Paul evidently assumes that nobody would attend a radical political speech as an observer, a reporter, a critic or a heckler. He infers that anyone attending such a speech is an incipient terrorist; hell, he presumes that even a sympathetic attendee is some kind of incipient criminal, when history is full of people who morally supported fringe movements across the entire right-to-left political spectrum and/or religious spectrum without actually doing anything that was criminal or treasonous, not even in a meaningful conspiratorial, abettor or "aid and comfort" sense. Indeed, it's not particularly uncommon to find groups who share a cause but differ over methodologies--the classic example that comes to my mind is the disagreement in the '60s civil rights movement between Malcolm X and Dr. King over the use of violence; please note, too, that one can sympathize with the reasons the younger, less moderate Malcolm might endorse violence while being absolutely opposed to actual acts of violence. (And ask yourself if there's a better way to engage the disagreement than to hear, say f'r'instance, Malcolm out in person and express your qualms and concerns and make the most persuasive arguments you can muster?)

I don't imagine myself going to see a radical religious figure of any sect speak any time soon; I'm not terribly interested and I'll confess I might be a bit frightened if the fellow is rousing followers to violence against people like me. (That seems like a bad scene.) But if I did go, I feel like I ought to be able to check-in on Facebook and write a fat blog post about the experience without being investigated by the Federal government.

And gosh, isn't that better for society anyway? I mean, there's actually two parts of the freedom of speech and freedom of association that the Founding Fathers were thinking of with the First Amendment and all the state analogues to it that the First Amendment inherited its DNA from. The first is the obvious one: that people ought to be able to hang out with whomever they want and listen to whatever they want and say whatever they want so long as it isn't hurting anybody else. The second, however, is social (and not, incidentally, private): we all ought to be able to know who you're associating with and what you're saying so that we can respond and make informed democratic decisions about things and whatnot. This is the old idea that "sunlight is the best disinfectant". What would happen if Rand Paul's totalitarian notion were actually put into law? What would happen is that radicals advocating the violent overthrow of our society would be driven underground; we wouldn't know where they were or who they were or what they were saying, and we wouldn't get the chance to ever say to any of them, "You don't really believe that, do you? Is that really for the best? Here's where you're wrong." (Do I need to add that secrecy offers mystery and glamour to stupid ideas, that what seems exotic and special when seen dimly beneath the moon frequently turns out to be ridiculous in the hard light of high noon?)

There's actually a great line in one of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, where Edmund (I think it's Edmund; it's been a while) says that if there's a wasp in the room, he'd like to be able to see it. Again, exactly. If there's an extremist spouting violent rhetoric, I want him on a street corner, not hiding in somebody's basement. I want him fearlessly blathering where everybody can see him and know what he's about, not skulking between safehouses and secret assemblies where nobody hears him but the faithful and no one asks any questions. And if he causes someone to get hurt, well then you can arrest him for that (thank goodness you ought to have a good idea where he is in a free country) and/or watch him get sued if civil remedies are appropriate (maybe that'll get a point across about responsibly exercising one's liberties), and, hell, if he actually manages to get fifty-one percent of the people on board with his weird-ass radical agenda... well, y'know, I guess that's democracy, gee.


Seth Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 1:36:00 PM EDT  

Sometimes I feel like I've got a little bit of an inner authoritarian. But I think there has to be a cutoff, a stopping point. You've defined the cutoff as: "if he causes someone to get hurt, well then you can arrest him for that." But what does it mean to cause something in this context? Did Bill O'Reilly cause the George Tiller murder? It seems fairly likely his speech was at least a factor.

And what happens when powers of arrest fail? Glenn Greenwald, for example, has taken it as his pet cause to expose and criticize the Obama Administration's plan to assassinate Anwar Al-Awlaki. On one level I, too, am made nervous by targeted assassination. On the other hand, here's a guy who, as far as I can tell, has already caused or contributed to one major violent incident (the Fort Hood shootings) and caused or contributed to another botched attempt (the underpants bomber). Suppose we grant the Administration's premise that we can't arrest him, at least not without a major invasion of Yemen, which nobody wants. Is dispatching him with a Hellfire missile really such a bad idea? Honestly, I don't know.

A few weeks ago, I posited a hypothetical on my blog about a SWAT sniper looking down on a hostage situation and seeing that one hostage-taker is trying to convince another hostage-taker to shoot one of the hostages. It was a complicated hypothetical, but the thing I was trying to get at was this: doesn't there have to be an ability to intervene before more people are hurt, when a speaker has already demonstrated that his speech goes beyond general philosophizing and into something like directing action?

I don't know. It's complicated. I get your point that we want these people operating out in the open. But I don't know how far the protection of free speech can go when speech is used to cause violent harm. At some point it does seem like security concerns trump speech. I'm not sure I'm competent to define the exact moment when that happens... but I think there must be such a moment.

*sighs. hands in liberal card.*

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