A few days after Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s secret – and criminal – surveillance programs, someone I know emailed his accusation that Snowden was a “traitor” who should be punished most severely.
In response, I posted a quote:
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. – Benjamin Franklin
My friend responded by writing, “Most Americans just don’t know what they don’t know. That’s why there is such secrecy involved in these security activities. It is not hyperbole to say that there are lives on the line here. For those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know. This kind of security activity has been going on in one form or another for a very long time, and most Americans will never know what horrors have been prevented in the process and at what cost to those serving this country.”
I offered another quote: If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom. – Dwight D. Eisenhower
He insisted: “I thought as you did until someone really in the know explained things to me that could turn your hair white overnight. You don’t know what you don’t know. Have faith that there are people out there protecting you from things you know nothing about, at the risk of their own lives, and be grateful that they are doing so…I know I will change no minds by what I am saying. I just know things that you do not know. If you knew what I know, you would probably think about this differently.”
Many years ago my friend had known someone who’d served in intelligence work. Like many thousands of other snoops, this person had spent his career believing that he was protecting America from the evil Soviets.
I followed with a couple of quotes from George Kennan, the primary architect of the American policy of “containment” of the Soviets:
Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. (1987)
I did not believe, nor did others who knew the Soviet Union well, that there was the slightest danger of a Soviet military attack…(1995)
I thought that by considering Kennan’s words, my friend might reassess his position and consider the possibility that his friend might have been a pawn in a much larger political and economic game. But his response made me wonder:
“Quotes are nice, but they may have been put out there for a reason. What do you know about the Cold War really? Have you spoken to people who were on the front lines of the Cold War? I have. Maybe what you think is what happened isn’t what happened.”
I responded: “No, but I have met people who were victims of the Cold War, who spoke out against the madness, and were persecuted for doing so. And ‘Traitor?’ After Viet Nam, Indonesia, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile, the Congo, South Africa, Iran, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, do you still believe in American innocence?
He wrote back, “Disinformation is put out to the public sometimes for reasons. Sorry if you think I sound patronizing. I am just trying to tell you that there is much you do not understand in a bigger picture than you currently understand. I do not know secrets, but I know something of how the business works. So in the end it does not matter to the protectors how citizens choose to view the situation. It matters that those who are working hard to protect us all are doing their jobs so that we are able to be free and alive to have these discussions.”
My response: “No – I’ve been writing not because of “the protectors” but in spite of them. I contributed another quote:
First they came for the communists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.
— Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
The conversation continued. My friend insisted that American intelligence saved our nation countless times from Soviet threats without the public ever hearing about these events.
I refered to Noam Chomsky, who has argued that a tacit compact developed that allowed a sharing of world management. The Soviets dominated their satellites in Eastern Europe, while the U.S. was free to overthrow Third World democracies. From this perspective, consider this 1960 statement by General Thomas Power, commander of the Strategic Air Command: “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.” Was it the joke of a psychopath or cynical hyperbole deliberately intended to maximize anxiety? Or would only the former do the latter?
I remain convinced that the United States government created the Cold War in order to scare the nation into accepting a permanent war economy. Once the Cold War itself became nearly permanent, there were very bad and very good people involved on both sides. My concern, however, is with our current popular perception of the American national security establishment and its intentions. Perhaps General Smedley Butler said it best:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.” (War is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier).
My friend argues, “There were American deaths in the Cold War.”
My response: Let’s consider a partial list (not counting World War Two) of the actual casualties of America’s anti-communist crusades:
Allied invasion of Russia, 1919: 3,000 dead
East Timor: 300,000
El Salvador: 75,000
Besides, your friend (who had retired and died well before 9/11/2001) spent his entire career monitoring Soviet communists, not Muslim terrorists. There was no “War on Terror” in his lifetime. Where is the connection?
Suppose there had been a genuine Russian threat to the “free world” (a propaganda phrase if there ever was one), and that Americans had served honorably in that cause.
How can you assume, these decades later, and after all the lies about Sadam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction,” that our current intelligence industry (with its 1.4 million employees, most of whom work for private, for-profit corporations) is protecting us from danger?
I suggest that you have transferred your paranoia from the old ‘Other’ to the new one – precisely as the ‘protectors’ want you to do.”
On it goes, to be continued. I have to imagine that truth (which Keats equated with beauty) will have the last word.