BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
This article was inspired by a friend who asked me what I thought about the whole NSA (National Security Agency, of the US) scandal that has been roiling the U.S. and international scene for the last two months. In case you’ve been determinedly hiding under a massive menhir, a former NSA contractor (named Edward Snowden) has come out as a whistle blower/leaker of the fact that the NSA has been collecting every phone call, etc. made by U.S. citizens (for close to seven years) to comb through for clues about upcoming terrorist actions. After sharing my thoughts, I got what I perceived as a figurative shrug over the phone. This got me to thinking about how our community was responding to this issue, so I conducted a very informal survey.
I tried to speak with fifteen people, eight men and seven women, and got through to fourteen. Four were engineers; there were three each of business owners, finance industry types, and lawyers; two government employees; and one each- doctor, elected official, media industry, and social service—these don’t add up to fifteen because some of the people fell into more than one category. The age range was very late 30s to early 60s (this might be a weakness; I should have tried to go a little higher and reached into the twenties). The political spectrum represented by these people also spanned from solidly left to pretty far (libertarian) right. Three were born in the U.S. and the remainder were not. All live in the Los Angeles area.
While most of the people I interviewed were opposed, in varying degrees, to the NSA’s vacuum-cleaner-like approach to doing its job, only three were arguably incensed. Three demurred from taking a definitive or any position because they did not feel well informed enough (a total of four people felt insufficiently aware).
The most pervasive sense I got from speaking to my “sample” was one of fatalism, jadedness, and cynicism. A mindset of “of course governments, including the U.S. government, do this” with some even agreeing that it should be done. One person said, “I’m not planning on blowing anything up” presumably meaning since there was nothing to hide, there was no reason to worry. Some had a concern about how the data gathered might be (ab)used in the future, since ultimately, those handling it are human beings. Others thought that there are better, more targeted ways, of achieving the same ends. Only two made Armenian related comments, with one of them saying this sort of activity would be acceptable for Armenia’s governments to do, given the threats posed by the neighboring countries. A number remarked that the cover of “fighting terrorism” was an angle that was simply being abused, resulting in these types of intrusive activities. Interestingly, I saw no correlation to birthplace, either, which surprised me since I had expected those born in the U.S. not to be carriers of the mindset begotten of having lived under less-than-democratic regimes.
This ambivalence matches that of Americans overall, at least based on the LA Times’ “Americans ambivalent on surveillance, poll says” (July 28, 2013). According to this item, most Americans think that even more is going on that they have not been told about, with insufficient oversight, yet they still support these “anti-terrorism” activities 50%-44%. Conversely, for the first time since this poll started in 2004, more Americans are concerned that these programs go too far (47%) vs. those who think they don’t go far enough (35%). You can see how conflicted people are about this matter.
Now, for a few facts and thoughts. According to an NSA official’s recent testimony, over the life of the eavesdropping program, only ONE terrorist incident MAY have been prevented by information gleaned from the TRILLIONS of calls, etc. processed. And, this particular incident was brought to American attention by the British anyway. The East German Stasi and the omnipresent government in George Orwell’s 1984, were both excellent data gatherers. They were both despicable for it. Yet, the same thing being done to us today generates only the barest response.
Tyrannical rulers love to argue “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” as they go about their oppressive business, so it’s very scary that one of those I polled made the same comment, and this person could be best described politically as a libertarian. Conversely, another one of my interviewees, perhaps the most left-wing in the sample, brought up the quote attributed to either Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Add to that Patrick Henry’s famous “… give me liberty, or give me death” and consider the utter indignity that we as Armenians were fighting against in the Ottoman Empire. How can these lofty sentiments be subsumed to fear and passivity, all engendered by the last dozen years’ worth of U.S. presidencies and their secretive security agencies (here, I’m not including the actual defense entities—army, navy, etc.).
I am utterly disgusted, enraged, incensed, and outraged that this type of spying on citizens is going on. Whether it is legal or not is irrelevant. It’s flat out wrong and shouldn’t be done. Plus, it obviously doesn’t generate much useful information anyway. So ALL of these sneaky programs must be terminated and replaced with a very narrowly defined, court authorized, and tightly Congressionally overseen system to do the work that must be done to secure the country against obscene attacks.
But, one thing gives me hope that citizen awareness may finally be rising to counter the elites’ (corporate and governmental) efforts to keep us all disgusted, distracted, jaded, numb, tired, and chasing our own tails in pursuit of the almighty dollar. A poll I heard about on the radio last week found that a majority think Edward Snowden (he’s the guy who revealed the existence of these vile surveillance programs) is not a traitor!
As humans, citizens, and Armenians, we must stand against these types of attacks against our persons, dignity, and ability to work for what we believe. All this surveillance serves more as a means of intimidating innocent activists than catching murderous madmen. Tell your congressional representatives to do away with this garbage.