The Scrapbook’s hypothesis that the substance of blockbuster news stories tends to diminish with time—there’s less here than meets the eye—is borne out most of the time. Which, as nonscientific theories tend to go, is an enviable record.
We believe that the current kerfuffle over government efforts to monitor communication patterns in order to prevent terrorist attacks is a case in point. Even with all the breathless headlines and cries of agony, no one has yet revealed any specific allegations of law-breaking. And the more we learn about the “whistleblower” Edward Snowden—as with Wiki-Leaks’s Julian Assange a couple of years ago—the more we realize that the press appears to have been hypnotized by a dubious character.
Of course, as The Scrapbook would be first to concede, any extension of government power must be treated with caution, and Congress has the power and responsibility to monitor surveillance programs. Even in the war on terror, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who will guard the guardians?) is a question free citizens need to ask.
From The Scrapbook’s perspective, however, the Snowden Affair has revealed two things of significance. First, as opinion polls consistently demonstrate, a solid majority of Americans believe that (in the words of the Pew Research Center) “the National Security Agency’s program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism.” The Scrapbook wouldn’t want the NSA listening in on its pillow talk, either—but that is not what is happening. It is all numbers and patterns, not eavesdropping, and these measures have reportedly helped prevent several attacks. Given the choice between impersonal surveillance, and a repetition of 9/11, most Americans understand what’s at stake.
The other revelation is less important, but surely noteworthy. In a sense, The Scrapbook has been gratified by the speed and passion with which prominent Democrats, in Congress and out, have rushed to defend national security. Not only are these programs constitutional, they argue, they have been instrumental in defending citizens against terrorism. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has even called for Edward Snowden to be charged with treason. Yet The Scrapbook cannot help but recall the prevailing attitude on the left about this subject during the Bush administration. Back then, when dissent was “the highest form of patriotism,” many prominent Democrats—notably freshman Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois—questioned the very premise of the war on terror, and objected to measures to protect homeland security as subverting the Bill of Rights, or designed to raise profits or accumulate power in the hands of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their corporate masters.
The Scrapbook has been around long enough to know that Senator Feinstein and (now) President Obama are unlikely to concede that President Bush was, in fact, correct about all this, motivated not by political malice but by patriotic duty, and that America is a demonstrably safer place, under the Constitution, because of his efforts to defend it. They won’t admit, in public at least, that he was right and they were wrong—but we’ll accept their apologies anyway.