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.