David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has taken to his personal website in the last few days to castigate Americans who object to the NSA's massive program of secret surveillance on innocents. His posts are an amalgam of real insight, self-indulgence, and a strange insistence that aspects of drug policing in Baltimore are an "apples to apples" analogue for NSA spying*. "If I sound exasperated with other liberal voices on this issue," Simon writes, "it's because their barricades are in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, defending the wrong moral and legal terrain." ** I'd like to address one of the wrongheaded arguments he offers for that proposition.
Simon writes (emphasis added):
We are comfortable with a certain level of intrusion involving all previous weapons of law enforcement, and even the use of phone metadata as it can be utilized. Why, I wonder. And why has this particular law enforcement intervention -- no less legal as it was proposed to the FISA-court -- engaged the worst fears of many.
The grand scale of the conjured nightmare? Sure, the fear of the massed totalitarian power of a surveillance state gets points for imagination. Mr. Maciej refers to himself as a technologist, and it is his considered opinion that the computer capabilities of the NSA are such that the government has finally created a law enforcement asset so big and dangerous that we dare not lift it, even to a legitimate task. Maybe so. And yet my problem with drawing the line at the technology itself is that it ignores the actual and essential responsibilities of self-governance. It's head-in-the-sand pretending, as if we can simply ask law enforcement to avoid using any of the really sharp and pointy things in its tool chest, rather than ask the government -- our government -- what they are building and why. That is where the hard work of sustaining a democracy must happen. And that is where it isn't happening. And anything that delays or excuses our delay in addressing the systemic is, I'm sorry, a waste of time and energy.
That "maybe so" is quite a concession! Maybe we've built a tool so powerful and dangerous that we dare not use it -- but Simon doesn't want to draw a line anyway, because preemptively deciding not to use the dangerous technology would be an evasion of ... hard work? This seems a bit like telling a married man high on Ecstacy that he must enter the brothel, because to avoid entering it would be an evasion of the hard work that sustaining a faithful marriage demands. Sometimes the most responsible thing is to foresee and avoid what you can't responsibly handle.