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The American polity is showing growing signs of a lapse into immaturity. Sobriety, accountability, responsible custodianship of the public good are the earmarks of serious leadership in a healthy democracy. Their common denominator is honesty – intellectual, political, and – above all, to oneself in knowing who one is and why one is doing things. These traits, today, are most remarkable by their absence from the country’s leadership ranks. That is true from the President on down. It encompasses not only our government officials on a bipartisan basis but a very large fraction of our political class as a whole.
Behavior usually associated with (some) adolescents has become the norm. The shirking of responsibility for one’s acts, a self-absorbed narcissism, the substitution of a gratifying virtual reality for an actuality that entails obligations to others and has consequences for dereliction are its hallmarks. Most disturbing, we have become so accustomed the resulting feckless conduct of our public affairs that we tacitly accept this degradation as the new normal. Therein lies the gravest danger; for it enables and encourages all those disposed to follow an indulgent path of least resistance. And that number grows steadily.
The extremity of this phenomenon is on full display in the NSA/FBI spying affair. Consider these events. President Obama declares that the PRISM program has been “transparent” when in fact its secrecy has driven a sustained campaign to hide it from public view – and even to restrict severely knowledge about it to protective Congressional committee members. He invites an open debate on the “trade-offs’ but offers no information as to what procedures are now in place with what justification. It is not the outright lying that is immature as much as is the attitude that not one should care or even notice the blatant contradictions. Too, he sends his message via a late night talk show rather than a serious address to the American people.
Responsibility for the program, and therefore accountability, is sloughed off with the claim that “checks & balances” have been incorporated into the program despite an ignorant Congress’ willful passivity and obedient FISA courts giving a nodding ’yes’ to everything the NSA, DOJ and White House demand. This is little different from the teen-ager justifying some outrageous behavior by claiming that ‘I checked with Ben and Jerry who said their parents think it’s O.K.” In a similar vein, Senate majority Leader Harry Reed blandly announced that the PRISM spying had to be legal since a majority of the American people think it’s okay according to the opinion polls.
Mr. Obama complains that the negative reaction to the Snowden disclosures has been “hyped.” “Cm’ on folks – don’t get all bent out of shape by a little thing like this.”
Then there is the blithe take-my-word-for-it testimony that all is upright. We have heard a chorus from executive branch officials assuring us that the content of electronic messages is never scrutinized except when the FISA court has granted a warrant and that communication patterns themselves are selected according to pre-determined reference points. Why should we believe them when the same people testified a few months back under oath that the PRISM program did not exist? Why should we believe them when they are simultaneously justifying the program with claims that massive, random data collection resulted in the prevention of “more than 50 terrorist acts?” How can you achieve the one without doing the other? This sort of logical contradiction in answers given to two different questions is a flagrant disregard for the most elementary standards of truthful public discourse.
The claim itself is absurd. Why should these 50 alleged plots have gone unremarked all this time when the administration has gone out of its way to highlight and celebrate every other instance of a supposed conspiracy foiled – even the most improbable? In addition, no records are provided that could be examined to determine if the assertions are accurate. Trust me! (“Dad, you know that I’d never do anything wrong!” Forget my ‘yellow sheet’ dating back to the age of 12). And if you don’t trust what I say, you’re the one who is undermining faith in our democracy.
Another example of juvenilia passing as serious public service is FBI Director Robert Mueller’s belated and grudging admission that the Bureau has been using drone aircraft to spy on Americans. Just a few weeks earlier the White House had been saying that the question of domestic drone use was under study and that it was prepared to cooperate with Congress in fashioning appropriate legislative guidelines. Embarrassment? Apology? Regrets? Of course not. The post-modern public narcissist never feels the need to apologize. He “explains” – however thin the explanation might be. Mr. Mueller tells the Senate Intelligence Committee: “I will tell you that our footprint is very small. We have very few of limited use, and we’re exploring not only the use, but the necessary guidelines for that use…..” drones were used “in a very, very minimal way, and very seldom….It is very narrowly focused on particularized cases and particularized needs, that is the principal privacy limitation we have.” It’s Bill Clinton, the eternal adolescent delinquent, explaining “I didn’t inhale;” or, “I’m/she’s minimally pregnant – so I didn’t think it important enough to tell you.”
The casual hypocrisy of all this was captured in the official statement that “the government does not “unilaterally obtain information” from corporate servers without ‘an appropriate, and documented foreign intelligence purpose to the acquisition.” We now know that Yahoo, Google, Facebook etc. have received and acted on over 100,000 demands for access to private records in 2012 alone. Over the life of PRISM that amounts to a number in the vicinity of 250,000. Telephone company demands have not been disclosed but they must be at least as numerous. Only Executive officials with a disregard for honesty would have the nerve to make us believe that each of those demands were documented and that there was reasonable cause to delve into those records. By its own dubious account, only 50 of them turned up anything useful – that is 1 out of every 10,000. Who is kidding whom? Are they kidding themselves ? Remember – these 500,000 requests are supposedly targeted on individuals already identified and thereby constituting just cause. Some targeting.
The “war on terror” – at home and abroad – is now more imaginary than real. We live with the dread belief that Americans are under siege by an army of evil-doers probing relentlessly for chinks in our armor so as to strike us a grievous blow. The images and emotions of 9/11 fill our minds and rule our actions. Events like the Boston bombings provide just enough impetus to perpetuate the fantasy. To live for more than a decade in a fantasy world is unnatural and unhealthful. Disturbed children do that – not the elites of a great nation.
Are we destined to be ruled indefinitely by immature people who have neither the intent nor the incentive ever to grow up?
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.