You know the “Stockholm Syndrome,” right? It’s when hostages empathize with their captors, a form of what psychologists call “traumatic bonding.” Welcome to the Stockholm Syndrome State. The culture of politics is in a coma, the result of an overdose of deference to authority dissolved in a long drink of state-sponsored fear. Shall we wake it up?
I’ve been watching Netflix DVDs of the TV series “The Newsroom.” I’m a little tired of the witty repartee every character created by Aaron Sorkin extrudes with spaghetti-like uniformity, but I’m also curious (and confess to a little bit of engagement in the fantasy of a newsroom driven equally by ethics and market shares). One thread in the episode I watched last night featured a Washington whistleblower bent on exposing the National Security Agency’s domestic spying: he delivers a long monologue about the myriad ways the NSA is collecting information on ordinary citizens and how that is betrayal of everything he believes. (Somehow I don’t think it will turn out that they smash the NSA, but I’m waiting for the final disk, so don’t tell me.)
The thing is, unlike Edward Snowden (the real-life whistleblower in today’s actual headlines), this character is careful not to reveal classified information or otherwise put himself in legal jeopardy. In fact, everything he tells the cable news division president played by Sam Waterston is already in the public record. The thick envelope the whistleblower passes to Waterston’s character is filled with transcripts of his congressional testimony. He has decided to blow his whistle into a cable network executive’s ear because members of Congress are too scared too act on what they know: too scared of the NSA perhaps, but more likely, of the aspersions that would be cast on their patriotism if in a post 9/11 America they dared to question the mindset that defines “security” pretty much the same way it’s done in the phrase “maximum security prison.” In the world “The Newsroom” depicts, security, whatever that is, has a price beyond rubies and miles beyond civil liberties.
Life imitates art again. The NSA’s very existence rests on questionable grounds: does a nation that already maintains two huge secret police forces—the FBI and CIA—really need to create another massive official eavesdropper headed by a military officer and bound by even fewer safeguards and protections? The National Security Agency was created by President Harry Truman at the height of Cold War-hysteria in 1952. It isn’t supposed to spy on citizens, but as revealed in the aftermath of former system administrator (which job title in English means “hacker for hire,” tasked with finding ways into secret networks) Edward Snowden’s recent leaks, it has been amassing whole mountain ranges of information on our phone calls, emails, and other communications, with the flimsy justification that it must cast its net as widely as possible to amass a collection from which to winnow out the relevant, authorized intelligence.
Edward Snowden was not the first to question the NSA’s mission and behavior: someone gave me James Bamford’s first cautionary book on the agency shortly after it was published in 1983, the same year Edward Snowden was born. Banford has written three since. The secret has been out for a long time.
Instead of calling public attention to this tsunami-scale taxpayer-subsidized malfeasance, I keep seeing reporters and commentators chatter about Snowden as a character: his childhood, his girlfriend, his oddities. Who cares? This is what magicians call misdirection, distracting the watcher’s attention from the business at hand. I don’t think they’re doing it with programmatic intent, as part of a vast conscious conspiracy to deceive the rest of us. I think they’re suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. They’ve internalized the premise this current controversy stands on, best expressed in the voice of tough-love parent: You want to be safe, don’t you? Suck it up and understand that your personal privacy is a small price to pay, just insignificant collateral damage from the due diligence demanded for homeland security.
Edward Snowden committed civil disobedience, breaking the law when he leaked secret information. Barack Obama responded by cancelling his passport (except for a one-time permit back to the U.S.) filing a sealed complaint under the Espionage Act of 1917, then unsealing it when press and public outcry grew too loud. (I highly recommend Glenn Greenwald’s Guardian piece reacting to that: you may be shocked by his chilling and accurate depiction of the Obama administration’s lockdown on information.) Joe Biden then phoned heads of state to press for denial of Snowden’s asylum claim. (The Guardian has a fascinating list of the 20 applications and so, far, approximately 19 denials, evidently for reasons very like those attributed to Congress on “The Newsroom.”) The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights forbids rendering anyone stateless; the Obama administration has split some very fine hairs insisting that it has not done so.
I keep rereading Jeremy Peters’ New York Times piece on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s blood-in-her-teeth defence of secrecy at all costs:
“I feel I have an obligation to do everything I can to keep this country safe,” Ms. Feinstein, who as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is one of the few Americans with detailed knowledge of the N.S.A.’s efforts, said in a recent interview from her private Capitol Hill office. “So put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Peters wrote that, “To her critics today, she is just another victim of Stockholm syndrome on the Congressional Intelligence Committees: an enabler of government overreach who has been intoxicated by the privilege of knowing the deepest-held state secrets.”
Is the whole nation in thrall to Stockholm Syndrome? I keep having that feeling you get walking into a room that hasn’t been dusted in years, wanting to brush away the cobwebs of irrelevancy clinging to our national debate. It’s impossible to have an accurate discussion of this issue while maintaining a tight focus on information collection, as if we just have to break the hoarding habit and all will be well. We can’t turn away from the truth known to everyone who’s tried to keep secrets since time began: if information is collected, it will eventually be used.
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
Snowden also revealed the remarkable extent of NSA spying on the confidential communications of U.S. allies, many of whom do not seem to be quite as susceptible to this particular strain of Stockholm Syndrome, as protests are ringing out. I will be interested to see who can stand up to the bully, inside our borders and without.
Longtime readers know I greatly admire Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work on risk and uncertainty, although we don’t exactly share a politics. But it seems the quip he posted to his Facebook page offers the most apt ending here:
To get a clearer idea of your preferences in the safety vs security debate (NSA), ask yourself whether you’d rather live in a hospital (or prison) where you would be “safe”, or in messy life where you would be exposed to hazards. Or, if you happen to be an animal, in the wilderness or the safety of a zoo.
Tab Benoit covering the 1967 Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.” “Something’s happening here…. It starts when you’re always afraid/Step out of line, the man come and take you away.”