Friedman, as he does frequently, cuts right to heart of the matter here, I think.
A few notes :
But can one live with the threat from al Qaeda more readily than that from government power? That is the crucial question that must be answered. ... In the long run, is increased government power more or less dangerous than al Qaeda?
Part of what makes this such a difficult question to answer is that the results of unchecked (or poorly checked, which ends up being the same thing on a slightly longer time scale) government power are relatively well understood. We don't know exactly how things would pan out, but we have a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that would happen. Some of those ideas have been overblown by movies and the like, but I still feel like people have a decent grasp of what an exremely powerful government can do. On the other hand, we don't have a good idea of precisely how dangerous Al Qaeda is in the long run, or exactly how much effort on our part is required to reduce the threat to a reasonable level.
(this leaves out the question of what a "reasonable level" of threat really even is, which is largely what Friedman calls us to discuss. My point it that even if that consensus is had, I don't think anyone has a good feel for how to achieve that level.)
Of course, those who favor increased government power to conduct security operations believe the threat from Al Queda to be the most extreme. They have visions of nuclear annihilation and rampant islam. Many of them probably have visions of joyous liberals dancing with the terrorists, given what can be read on any given day around the internets.
I concede that the other side may sometimes minimize the danger somewhat, but it's tough to guage in a climate where *any* disagreement with a particular course of action by the administration is met with cries ranging from "obstructionist" to "traitor". I honestly and objectively don't think the left minimizes the threat as much as the right overhypes it.
The left *is*, however, extremely scared of an environment in which the government has broad powers of surveillance and the power to act on what they find. They, shit, I'll admit it, *we* fear political reprisals when the point *should* be catching terrorists. As it happens, we're starting to see some evidience that this happens. The extremists in Right Blogistan, of course, not only admit this, but glory in it. Moderate Republicans (a dying breed) and *actual* conservatives (likewise) are almost as uncomfortable with it as I am.
On both sides of the issue, it seems to us, there has developed a
fundamental dishonesty. Civil libertarians demand that due process
be respected in all instances, but without admitting openly the
catastrophic risks they are willing to incur. Patrick Henry's
famous statement, "Give me liberty or give me death," is a
fundamental premise of American society. Civil libertarians demand
liberty, but they deny that by doing so they are raising the
possibility of death. They move past the tough part real fast.
Is this really true? I'm not being facetious, i really don't know, but I haven't gotten this impression. I think those of us who argue against increasing government power are very much cognizant of the *fact* that we're very likely raising the risk of attacks. I use the word "fact" on purpose, and carefully, because one thing we're not aware of is the *probability* or *likelihood* of that increase. As I said above, that's the open question that's so difficult to answer. Obviously, we believe the probability is in some undefined but acceptable range, but that's not the same as saying we don't acknowledge the tradeoff. We may be wrong, obviously, but how do we know?
The problem that critics of the program must address is simply
this: If data mining of phone calls is objectionable, how would
they suggest identifying al Qaeda operatives in the United States?
We're open to suggestions.
I'm not sure this is particularly true, nor is it helpful to be glib about it like this. I don't subscribe to the notion that you must be able to present an alternative before you're allowed to criticize. That's particularly true when the vast majority of us aren't operating with anywhere near all the information.
The problem that defenders of the program have is that they expect to be trusted to use the data wisely, and to discipline themselves not to use it in pursuit of embezzlers, pornographers or people who disagree with the president. We'd love to be convinced.
Again, glib, but also weak. You can't be convinced. That's the whole point. "Convincing" me that the government won't abuse power involves demonstrating that there are checks and balances and well defined limits to that power. In other words, convincing me that you won't abuse power means ensuring that you can't. That's it. Even mildly implying that such a "convincing" argument could be made is a concession I'm uncomfortable with.
The trade-off between liberty and security must be debated. The
question of how you judge when a national emergency has passed must
be debated. The current discussion of NSA data mining provides a
perfect arena for that discussion. We do not have a clear answer of
how the debate should come out. Indeed, our view is that the
outcome of the debate is less important than that the discussion be
held and that a national consensus emerge. Americans can live with
a lot of different outcomes. They cannot live with the current
intellectual and political chaos.
This is the best section in the article -- I absolutely agree. Primarily I agree because to have that debate requires a return to civil, mutually respectful dialogue, and we haven't been having much of that in politics. It's long overdue, and will never happen as long as the voices remain so shrill.
Civil Liberties and National Security