Monday, September 9, 2013

Accepting the Unacceptable

Trey Smith

Whether in the realms of sports, entertainment, business, politics or everyday life, many aging civil rights leaders bemoan the fact that today's black Americans have forgotten the long struggle of their forefathers and foremothers as they struggled for equal rights under the law. Because they didn't face the stark brutality of fire hoses, police dogs, batons, bombings, lynchings and burning crosses, many of today's blacks take for granted the sacrifice of those who came before them.

Henry Porter makes much the same point in regards to the British reaction to the many revelations of the ubiquitous spying programs on both sides of the pond.
At a wedding last week, I was sitting next to a novelist who was writing about the cold war, so I told her the story of how the Secret Intelligence Service thanked all its agents in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a moving story from another age and I know it to be true.

As Germany approached unification, Her Majesty's government authorised payments of – I believe – 30,000 DM (£10,200) to all the agents who had risked life and liberty to help MI6. A team of intelligence officers was deployed to track down former agents, or their families, and present the cheque with the government's gratitude. It was a long and emotional job, for the young officers heard many agonising stories about loss, sacrifice and years spent in prison.

At length, there was one individual left on the list. He arrived at MI6's office on the main thoroughfare of Unter den Linden, in the old East Berlin, but instead of taking the money, he rushed out back on to the street, pursued by one of the spies with the cheque. He rejected it for a second time, gesturing frantically towards the Brandenburg Gate. Didn't the British government understand that he'd done it all so that his children could walk through the gate as free citizens?

This captures a lot about the times that formed my political beliefs, as well as the miracle of the 1989 liberation. During the cold war, we valued freedom and privacy because we compared our lives to the tyrannical conditions in the Communist bloc. Whatever the faults of western societies, we knew we were better than those societies and we knew that we were right .

The story has been playing in my mind recently, because all summer I have been puzzling over the lack of reaction in Britain to the Snowden revelations about US and UK communications surveillance, a lack that at some moments has seemed even more remarkable than the revelations themselves. Today, apparently, we are at ease with a system of near total intrusion that would have horrified every adult Briton 25 years ago. Back then, western spies acknowledged the importance of freedom by honouring the survivors of those networks; now, they spy on their own people.
By and large, the US reaction has been a lot more muted than I expected. I truly thought that many Americans would be become unglued and that these revelations might lead to a WTO in Seattle or an Occupy Movement kind of reaction. Sadly, few organizations have taken up the cause. More people are demonstrating in the nation's capitol today against missile strikes in Syria (a noble cause) than against a government that is trying to outlaw privacy.

One of things that used to make Americans feel proud of this nation was our emphasis on liberty. We fought a revolution against the English crown and, when we won, we crafted the US Constitution that, among other things, contained a Bill of Rights. While these rights always have been imperfectly applied, American citizens, by and large, enjoyed the right to privacy. Though the US Constitution has not been altered in this regard, that right has been jettisoned from the document by the Executive Branch and neither the legislative nor judicial branches have served as much of a roadblock.

When I was a schoolchild in the 60s, one of things heralded as a major difference between the US and USSR (or Communist China) was that, unlike my Russian counterparts, I didn't have to worry about the KGB infiltrating society and watching my every move. I was free to be me and, unless I was engaged in nefarious illegal activities, I had not a thing to worry about. I could be a socialite, business leader, academician or even a dissident and no one would be culling through my communications or rifling through my personal affects.

That stuff only happened in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, despots or demagogs. That only happened in Communist, Nazi or Fascist nations. I was blessed to live in the United States of America, the titular home of the brave and the free.

My Goodness.  How times have changed!

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