I would rather live with the possibility of terrorism on U.S. soil than the certainty of domestic surveillance. There, I said it.
I don’t think that makes me less of a patriot; the Founders would have agreed with me. I don’t think that makes me soft on terrorism. There’s so much more we can do to fight terror without giving up our freedom.
Virtually every premise of massive electronic domestic data mining as a tool to fight terrorism is wrong, or at least worth questioning. Because such programs were, until recently, shrouded in secrecy, it is hard to evaluate them, but at the very least we shouldn’t accept them blindly.
How do we know, for example, that a similar investment of time and resources in conventional police and counterintelligence work would not yield similar or even better results? The effectiveness of domestic electronic surveillance programs is simply asserted, never analyzed.
What is to stop terrorists from using secure encryption, or simply giving up electronic communication altogether? Let’s not forget that Osama bin Laden did not permit the use of cellphones in his presence. He was brought down through the slow, careful use of tried and true intelligence practices.
What will happen to any classified domestic data mining system once the War on Terror is over? Can we expect it simply go away? Or will its minders find other uses for it? Does history have anything to teach us?
Some of you are probably tempted into thinking this is just one of those times when we have to give up liberty in exchange for security. But it’s impossible to be completely safe from random acts of violence, even in a police state. That’s just a fact of life we have to accept. Before you surrender more of your personal autonomy, shouldn’t we ask if there are other options?
In fact, there are, and they will give us more freedom instead of less. We should: a) reduce our military footprint overseas, and b) pass the savings on to taxpayers. This double whammy will undercut international support for terrorism abroad, and will make the American economy stronger. When it comes to fighting terrorism, our best weapons are wealth and prosperity.
I am not one of those who believe that if we pull back our armed forces, terrorism will go away. I have no doubt that suicide bombers and members of terrorist organizations hate everything America stands for, and will continue to maim and kill, regardless of American foreign policy.
But anti-American sentiment throughout the world is their lifeblood. It is how they raise money, how they get places to train, and how they recruit. That, we can do something about. The world sees America as a bully. It is time to bring the troops home.
We need to accept a fundamental reality: Bringing the Enlightenment to the Islamic world is not within our power to do, nor is it an appropriate use of our military. There is no evidence that our far-flung adventures in nation building and world shaping have made the world safer. Quite the contrary.
So before we accept that all our phone calls and emails must be readable in the name of national security, and that the use of strong crypto marks you as a person of interest, shouldn’t we try something else first? All we have to do is say, one voter at a time: “I would rather live with the possibility of domestic terrorism than the certainty of domestic surveillance.” That won’t make you a crazy tea partier or a left-wing nut job. It’ll make you an American.
Al-Qaida and radical Islamic terrorists are threats to Americans. But they are small threats, and America will survive them. Domestic surveillance programs, by contrast, are threats to America. If we allow them to weave themselves into the fabric of our national life, then the knife will be at America’s throat.
Don’t let that happen on your watch.
Barry Fagin is the Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. He can be reached at at email@example.com. This op-ed originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette.