David Simon's Worst Idea: Caving to the NSA as a Communal Sacrifice

Arguing that minorities have long been subject to the surveillance state, he bristles at opposing it now that everyone is a target.

For David Simon, creator of The Wire, the NSA surveillance scandal is one of those rare moments "when the rest of America finally understands something, and comes to resent and acknowledge that which black and brown America has internalized and tolerated for generations." 

So begins a disjointed tirade* that seems to posit that America's inadequate reaction to the drug war should affect the degree to which we object to the national-security state. "What poor and working-class communities routinely endure within the very constitutional construct of our drug war makes the wails of indignation over this NSA data-mining astonishing and embarrassing to me," he writes (though the wails of indignation are often coming from organizations like the ACLU that have complained for decades about the drug war).

Amazingly, Simon proceeds to treat opposition to the NSA's actions as if it is evidence of selfishness. "If you are libertarian," he writes (naming the group most supportive of ending the drug war), "well hey, there's never an act of communal sacrifice or societal aspiration that rises above the requisite contempt for collective governance and shared responsibility. For them, this issue is tailor-made." The NSA issue is tailor-made for libertarians; but not because they're selfish. 

Says Simon:

As Mr. Mooney would declare: "America, it's your nigger wake-up call."

Yes, I'm going there. Because the other America, the part that has kicked up and anted its required share of privacy and government intrusion for our crime suppression efforts, they've been there a long time now. Those arguing about scope are saying, in a backhanded way, that thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, can have their data collected for weeks or months on end because they happened to use a string of North Avenue payphones, because they have the geographic misfortune to live where they do. And it's the same thing when it's tens of thousands of Baltimoreans, predominantly black, using a westside cell tower and having their phone data captured. That's cool, too. That's law and order, and constitutionally sound law and order, at that. But wait: Now, for the sake of another common societal goal -- in this case, counter-terror operations -- when it's time for all Americans to ante in with the same, exact legal intrusion, the white folks, the middle-class, the affluent go righteously, batshit, Patrick-Henry quoting crazy? Really? Where have you fellas been the last thirty fucking years? 

He goes on:

I can't help but look at the actual affront to individual Americans that this data pile in Utah demands, compare it to what America routinely requires of its own underclass and working class, and marvel at our national capacity for indifference when someone else is carrying the weight.

And finally:

This, too, is why I won't climb the barricade where Mr. Maciej thinks I ought ... to do so only at those places where the cost is to one America, and not the other, is to assure that only one part of our country will continue to sacrifice, and that the rest of our nation will remain inert while real affronts to civil liberties continue. The drug war has gone on for as long as it has in complete failure of its stated goals because of who it targeted -- and who it did not. And at every point when ordinary, middle-class or affluent Americans are given a chance to disassociate from the struggle of others -- whenever and wherever they are given a buyout from the real costs of maintaining a policy or upholding a societal value -- they take the free pass and run.

Knowing what I know about how tolerant we are in America about allowing those without political capital -- our poor, our minorities, our most vulnerable citizens -- to shoulder the full weight of our security and crime suppression costs, I pay attention when other folks -- upon being asked to endure the most modest inclusion of their personal information in a data base to be used for a collective and legal purpose -- suddenly declare that it is un-American for such a thing to be attempted, regardless of the goal.

In this narrative, our most vulnerable citizens have long been made to live in a police state, and now that everyone else is being asked to do so, they're selfishly unwilling to endure their share, even though it's modest -- merely the collection of data on all of their digital communications! Since I write a good deal about the evil of the drug war and the way the civil liberties of the most vulnerable Americans are violated, I won't dwell on restating my agreements with Simon here, except to say that many Americans really do ignore core liberties until they're affected. The conditions in our prisons are perhaps the best example of all, and a national disgrace.

Those agreements aside: The idea that opposition to the NSA's surveillance is rooted in selfishness is utterly groundless**, a point I won't dwell on only because there's an even more important one to be made. I'll put it in the form of a question for David Simon: If the NSA abuses its authority in a way that would have been impossible or much harder without the controversial data gathering, do you imagine that the victims are going to be wealthy, ruling-class white people who went to the same colleges as the folks who staff the White House and donate to Senate campaigns? Or is it perhaps more likely that political dissidents, those who betray the ruling class, and especially "the most vulnerable Americans" will (as ever) be disproportionately subject to abuses? Is there any particular ethnic minority you can think of that might fear the abusive potential of a pervasive, terrorism focused surveillance state more than most? If not, try looking at what the NYPD has done with its mini-surveillance state apparatus.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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