Make no mistake, we find ourselves in a profoundly disorienting time. Our worst fears of government abuse have been realized by the NSA’s invasion of our privacy and it can be easy to lose one’s faith and resort to resignation. I pray you don’t. And I write you to let you know that I have hope for positive change despite the familiar ease that cynicism might afford us.
If I come to you with confidence, it is not the product of naiveté. In my line of work, I regularly see government abuses most of you don’t. I see injustice that can be disheartening and a battle that seems sometimes impossible to win. But faced with a Sisyphean struggle, I keep the faith and fight the fight. I do this not because I have the happy yet delusional belief that I will ever effect a utopian form of justice where no wrongs occur but rather because I see all too clearly the importance of being a bulwark against abuse. I take my place as a strong—and often solitary—line of defense against the government’s enormous coercive power by representing those whom the government seeks to deprive of their liberty. It doesn’t take the experience of the aged to see the type of abuses that might occur but for my place in between the massive force of the government’s tide and the easily eroded coast of our constitutional rights. To the contrary, the mere willingness to demand accountability is a hugely important part of preserving the rights we hold so dear.
As a nation, we now are in an unenviable position. There is no more waiting or denying or ignoring. We now know the extent of the government’s abuses. We know that the NSA has been collecting massive amounts of our data and that naught but policies prevent each and every one of us from having our lives laid bare. Indeed, for many of us who have done no wrong, we will still surely be swept up in the dragnet of ‘incidental’ data collection. If we are all within six degrees of knowing Kevin Bacon, then a great many of us are likely within two degrees of knowing someone who might become a target of an investigation. We are past the point of denying that this is happening because a variety of government officials have acknowledged that it is indeed happening. It may not have been surprising to some of us to learn that the capability to collect and monitor so much exists or that some rogues inside an agency such as the CIA or NSA would want these programs. The hard part to swallow is that so many independent officials such as our president have blessed the conduct. That is the truly heartbreaking and disappointing part.
And so it leaves us in this uncomfortable position. What do we do when leaders on both sides of the aisle have allowed this and backed it? Can we change things? Truthfully, I must confess to you that I don’t know for sure…but I know that we must not give up or wait around to act. This is easier said than done because it takes both courage and motivation to act. Nevertheless, I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s instruction that “[i]n this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.” As he put it, “[w]e are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
His words ring every bit as true today as they were when he said them in 1967. I have seen enough to know that our only hope of holding the government to the standard we expect of them is to get involved. If we take it for granted that there is nothing we can do, we surely will lose our opportunity to preserve our freedoms. Indeed, if we give up so easily, perhaps we don’t deserve them.
Some of you may be enticed or comforted by the explanations of those in power who claim they need such broad surveillance capabilities in order to keep you safe. They will tell you that their programs are saving lives and stopping bad guys from doing bad things. Don’t take such claims to heart. We would no doubt make it easier for police to solve crime if we stopped requiring them to get warrants to search our effects and seize our things. In fact, removing such Fourth Amendment protections would, statistically speaking, be highly likely to help prevent at least a little bit more crime. Yet few of us would find that trade-off acceptable. So why here? Why when terror is concerned? Why should we be willing to allow blanket seizure of our private data for storage and potential later search by the NSA? The mere fact that it might help stop more acts of terror is not sufficient because that has never been the litmus for the acceptability and constitutionality of state action. Throughout our young country’s history, we have never given credence to the lie that ends justify means. We are not a nation that will suffer our freedoms for the hollow promise of being somewhat more safe. To the contrary, what makes us unique and great is our willingness to fight so vigorously for our individual rights. The effectiveness of programs like Prism have no bearing on the merit or constitutionality of their existence.
The real test of character comes in these sorts of moments. In these times where some people seem complacent and others seem without hope that they have the power to change things. Our power to change things may indeed be uncertain. What surely isn’t, however, is that the abuse will continue if we do nothing. I still have great faith that our willingness to speak up and stand up for what we believe in as a country can cause a change. I care about you, America. And no matter what eventually comes, please know that I never gave up on you.