One consequence of the massive NSA surveillance program has not received the attention it deserves.

We are told that NSA’s  huge database containing all our telephone, email and internet connections enables the authorities to find out who has been talking to terrorists and who might have been enlisted by jihadist or other extremists plotting attacks upon us.  That sounds like a logical goal, but the implication is that anyone who talks to a person identified as a terrorist or criminal,  and anyone who might listen to a hate-filled speech or read a book or an article by someone certified as an enemy, or look at an al-Qaeda website, automatically deserves our suspicion and needs to be investigated.  This reminds me of the “guilt by association”  assumptions that ruined the careers of countless innocent individuals during the McCarthy era sixty years ago.

More to the point, this implication of guilt can have a chilling effect on research and  inquiry.  And that includes any attempt we might make to understand the fundamentalist extremists who continue to send eager young suicidal martyrs against us. We will never be able to defeat them unless we truly understand what fires them up, and thereby figure out how to shut them down. Because we did not understand the enemies we went to war against, American troops are still taking casualties in Afghanistan after 11 years,  the sectarian conflict we left behind in Iraq is still claiming lives every day, and our troops are still facing a hostile, threatening enemy on the Korean peninsula 60 years after the war we fought there supposedly came to an end.

“Know Thine Enemy” has been a strategic watchword for centuries.  Yet we will never understand our enemies if the fear of being labeled enemies ourselves  discourages us from studying them. How our surveillance state can thus muffle the critical thinking required for academic research is explored and explained in an incisive recent article by a UCLA PhD candidate, who happens to be my niece, Lila.  I urge you to read it.    Here is the link