I knew it would happen at some point. Though he has gotten a firm "meh" from me from the moment he emerged as a presidential candidate, I am finally proud of Barack Obama.

Obama was concluding remarks about his Affordable Health Care Act during an address in Northern California Friday morning when he fielded a single question about the NSA and the recently disclosed domestic spying programs.

"I think it's important to recognize that you can’t have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience," the president told the crowd while delivering several minutes of unscripted remarks about the NSA.


I suspect Obama will suffer as a result of this approach, but it is about time that someone spoke to the American public like an adult. Of course the politically expedient thing to do is to indulge the juvenile fantasies of the electorate, the ones where they get lots of things from the government but don't have to pay for them and where they are kept safe from every potential threat with no limitations on their rights and liberties. You know what kind of person expects to get everything they want at no cost? Children. Bratty teenagers. Spoiled college kids. I have great respect for anyone willing to tell the public, "Look, make up your goddamn minds. You want us to prevent terrorism by the most aggressive means available. Well, this is the cost. If anyone has a better idea of how to stay on top of every potential terrorist activity on the planet we'd love to hear it."

Freshman-level political science courses teach students that rights and security sit at opposite ends of a see-saw. To increase one necessarily does something to decrease the other. We simply cannot have it both ways. But we have a political system that gives individual elected officials an incentive to tell us we can. There is nothing to gain by telling voters, "You were howling about terrorism and we passed a law giving the president sweeping powers to fight it. We had chances to repeal that law (or let it expire) and the right-wing media crapped itself at the thought of 'weakening' our response to terrorist threats. This infringement of your privacy is the result of that law." There's everything to gain from voting for the Patriot Act and then stoking their braying outrage over The Gub'mint listenin' in on mah phone calls.

What I'm saying here is not a defense of these surveillance programs. It is a simple statement of fact. We cannot have the best of every possible world. If you place the most value on privacy and individual rights, then you'd best accept the fact that terrorism will be more difficult to stop. If you value security more highly, realize that the pursuit of security will involve some limitations on privacy. Majorities of Americans support the NSA's actions and almost 2/3 agree that privacy is secondary to combating terrorism. That it is popular does not make it right, but it does mean that our elected officials are going to err on the side of security ten times out of ten. It's not like Americans really believe in rights anyway.

But more on that tomorrow.

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58 Responses to “GROWN-UP TIME”

  1. Talisker Says:

    @eau: If you define security narrowly as "the authority of the government to do things to its citizens", then yes, liberty versus security is a zero-sum game. But I don't think this is a useful (or conventional) definition of security.

    Talking about the balance of authority (or control) vs. liberty would make a lot more sense. But in common usage we seem to be stuck with "security versus liberty", partly because of that pithy Ben Franklin quote.

    @queenrandom: Good point re. quantity vs. quality of data. Although with modern data mining methods this is less true than it used to be. In theory, with good enough algorithms, analysts could extract useful knowledge from a huge mountain of data without an unreasonable expenditure of human time and attention. That said, I seriously doubt whether the NSA (and particularly its private-sector subcontractors) are smart enough to do this.

  2. Big dog Says:

    @eau I'm mystified by what you mean by "policy" in your response to Big Sister. If increased security does not entail increased safety, at least in theory, what exactly does it entail? What does safety in a physical sense mean and why do you so constrain it. Is financial safety/security physical or is your "physical" restriction more like stuff we might do to keep from falling down the stairs?

  3. eau Says:

    @Talisker – I define security as those policies/acts designed or implemented to restrict or stop acts or threats against the body in question – in this case, the USA (not, as many assume, the *people* of the USA).

    I think you're right about Franklin, but security/liberty is, as you said, what we have to work with here, because… because people are stupid, I guess.

    @Big Dog – Yes, my wording was fairly awkward there, wasn't it? Sorry about that. Hopefully, my answer to Talisker demystifies my meaning somewhat. What I was trying to say was constraint of your personal liberty does not necessarily mean a net gain in your personal safety, even in cases when they serve the perceived security of the USA (which they often don't).

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  5. bb in GA Says:

    @big dog

    I figured some doofuss here would take my pointing this out as some kind of W worship. Typical Left wing smear tactic.

    Sorry about the pretzel, J Dryden. But doncha think Potato Chip Chokin' has a little more poetry than Pretzel Chokin'?? I think it is the extra syllable…


    Kong – what are you talking about? – Democrats do it too? They are freakin some of the most important officials in the US of A. and you make excuses for their moral cowardice.

  6. Graham Says:

    I find myself diametrically opposed to everything in this post. First time for everything, I suppose.

  7. Fen Says:

    via Instapundit:

    “As for our common defense,” Barack Obama declared in his First Inaugural Address, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. . . . Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

    Last Friday the president said this: “I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

    ie. Obama's ethics are either situational OR he's just paying lip service to whatever you want to hear.

  8. Graham Says:

    Last Friday the president said this: “I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

    I watched this address last night. Never have I seen Obama look more uncomfortable. He was halting and inarticulate and his eyes were everywhere, looking for an escape route.