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By revealing the extent of the government’s snooping on our phone calls and emails, Edward Snowden opened up a couple of national debates.
The wrong debates.
First of all, we hear pointless arguments over whether Snowden is a heroic whistle-blower or a dangerous traitor, whether he will go to jail for exposing secrets or somehow evade the long arm of U.S. law.  Besides Snowden himself, who cares?  Neither the traitor’s punishment nor the hero’s freedom will matter one bit to the future of our democracy.
More important than the fact that Snowden revealed some secrets are the facts that he revealed. And on that score we are engaged in another misleading debate.  The discussion has been framed as security vs. privacy, and most Americans are apparently willing to give up some privacy for security against terrorism.
But there are several levels of privacy. The privacy that most of us are talking about and are willing to sacrifice concerns our bank balance, our ATM password and our social security number, pillow talk, medical diagnoses, school grades, legal judgements, the identity of a lover, and, for some of us our true age and weight. We’ve given up a lot of that kind of privacy already, so we don’t think that the loss of a little more of it is that big of a deal.
The big deal is on that other level of privacy, the privacy  we take for granted. That is the intellectual privacy of our thoughts and opinions, our political leanings, our religious beliefs, our deepest loyalties: the privacy enshrined in the secret ballot. As a nation we have never really lost that privacy (although we have come close) so we don’t have a gut sense of what it would be like to live without it, under a dictatorship.  Consider a government that could eavesdrop and spy at will on any of its subjects, that could quickly identify “troublemakers,” learn what opponents and potential opponents are thinking and planning and then throw them in jail without a trial–not for committing a crime but simply for opposing the government or for “subversive” activities or, yes, “terrorism.”
Within the past century, most Europeans have lived under precisely those conditions,  police state oppression wielded by Nazis, fascists or Communists. In Asia today dissident Chinese, North Koreans, Vietnamese still face continual surveillance and the fear of sudden arrest.  The Japanese imposed police control with brutal efficiency on their own people and on their conquered territories in the 1930s and ‘40s.  And dictators in the less-developed countries of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East have maintained their hold on power the same way.
So it’s no wonder that the rest of the world–and Europe in particular–has been more disturbed by the recent revelations of U.S. surveillance than most Americans.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think President Obama intends to eradicate our freedoms.  But with the surveillance procedures, with the aggressive prosecution of whistle-blowers, and with a few Justice Department memos of dubious legality, his administration is fine-tuning the electronic and legislative machinery that could enable some future president to build a police state.  A more ruthless president will find surveillance databases up to date, secret FISA eavesdropping warrants enshrined in law, NSA computers ready to pinpoint and listen in to the “dangerous” conversations, courts and law officers authorized to jail “enemies” without trial, and a public willing to endure all this as the price of security.
It’s not far-fetched to think that we might elect a president who would abuse these tools: we’ve already had one. President Nixon spied on his opponents using an arsenal of legal and illegal means.  With the surveillance infrastructure now available, Nixon could have found whatever he wanted in the Democratic Party’s Watergate headquarters without relying on a bunch of clumsy burglars–and without getting caught. Imagine what else Nixon could have done with the apparatus Obama has approved.
Obama did not invent this stuff; the Bush administration started most of it and Obama campaigned against it.  And I believed him and voted for him. Somebody tell me what happened to him when he got to the Oval Office.