Wide-eyed innocents

A letter to the editor in this morning’s New York Times, on the topic of the NSA spying scandal, reiterates a familiar refrain: the innocent have nothing to hide.

You hear this a lot lately, from Bush supporters who are perfectly willing — eager, even — to trade essential liberty for temporary safety. Because the world is a very, very, very scary place. Because we’ve never faced such a dire threat before. And of course, because we learned on September 11 that oceans no longer protect us.

I know I’ve said this before, but those of you of a certain vintage probably remember how safe you felt growing up, with those great big oceans out there, when all you had to worry about was, you know, the constant threat of imminent nuclear annihilation. You all felt awfully safe back then, didn’t you, with the duck and cover drills and the back yard bomb shelters and the Cuban missile crisis and the rest of it.

But now, things are different. We’re no longer as secure as we were back then, in the good old days, with the oceans and all. Which is why we have to let the president do whatever he feels is necessary to protect us, and we can’t let some old scrap of paper like the Constitution stand in our way.

Anyway, if you’re innocent, you have nothing to hide.

I don’t know if the good citizens who chant this mantra are really as virtuous as they claim, of course. I don’t know if they have any toys stashed under the bed that they’d rather their neighbors didn’t know about, if there are any items of clothing they like to wear when no one else is around, if they fudge the numbers on their tax returns or maybe drink a little more than they should or drive too fast or have phone conversations that they don’t want their spouses to know about or indulge, one way or another, in any one of a myriad of minor sins which are not unfamiliar to most human beings. But more likely, they’re just not thinking in those terms. What they mean is, “If I’m not planning a terrorist attack, I have nothing to worry about.” Oblivious to the lessons of history, they’re not thinking about anything else. They’re not worried about the abuse of power because they just can’t imagine themselves as the target of an abusive government. They see themselves as Right Thinking Citizens, and when push comes to shove, they imagine that the policeman or the FBI agent will notice the flag pin on their lapel and give them a knowing wink and move on down the line to harass some dirty America-hating ACLU type who deserves to be harassed by the government.

It’s often suggested that these misguided souls might be led to the path of enlightment if only the argument were framed in terms they might understand: What if Hitlery Clintoon steals the election in 2008? Do you want her poking through your email, listening to your phone conversations? But somehow even that doesn’t really seem to get through. Maybe the possibility of Hitlery Clintoon as president is just too far-fetched to take seriously. Or maybe they can barely think past tomorrow morning, and just don’t care about the consequences of their short-sighted acquiesence to clearly illegal behavior on the part of their government.

I honestly don’t know. It all seems pretty straightforward to me. As I was growing up, the lessons were clear, the difference between this country and our ideological opponents was obvious. We were free citizens — they lived in fear and suspicion, constantly monitored by an intrusive government. But I guess there were a lot of crazy ideas floating around back during the freewheeling seventies. Free love, disco, respect for the Bill of Rights — that sort of thing. These days, we know better. We understand that we need a watchful, protective presence — a kind of big brother, if you will — to keep us safe from Emmannuel Goldstein The Terrorists.

And anyway, the innocent have nothing to hide.


… crossposted this one over at the Huffington Post. Since comments are open there, I might as well throw them open here as well.

…from comments:

The NKVD (Stalin’s internal security apparatus) slogan was, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

Does anybody know if this is accurate? Many references on Google, but I can’t find a specific confirmation. Any Soviet scholars in the house?