“Big Brother is Eyeing Us – For Good or Evil?”

Presenting the Thought of the Day by Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co.

“Big Brother is Eyeing Us – For Good or Evil?”

By Sydney M. Williams

We have all become increasingly aware of the fact that no matter what we do, where we go, or who we see, someone is watching us. It may not be “1984” yet, but it is getting pretty close. Most cell phones have a GPS chip built in, allowing your movements to be tracked within a few feet. Credit cards record all purchases – where and when. A car’s GPS system – built into its navigation system – tracks your car within a few yards. Last week I spent a few days skiing in Vail where the concept really hit home. Their Epic Pass has a chip that allows the mountain to track your every movement – the lift you ride, the trail you come down, when and where you take a break. The system is popular; it calculates the vertical feet one skis; it also allows one to track one’s friends, knowing what lift or trail they are on.

There is much that is useful, and even potentially lifesaving, in the ubiquity of such technology, but there is the risk that the information may fall into the wrong hands. Either way it is antithetical to the concept of the independent individual on which our society is based. Keep in mind, the Fourth Amendment of our Constitution guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

In the wake of the terrorists attack on 9/11, the Patriot Act was drafted, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush on October 25, 2001. (It is amazing how quickly Congress can act when they choose to!) The Act essentially provided the federal government the tools that were already in place – with court-ordered warrants – to counteract organized crime and drug trafficking. But, it did so while generally eliminating the necessity of getting court approval to search e-mails, tap into phone calls, access medical, financial and library records. A crisis, it has been said, is a terrible thing to waste. Most of the Act’s provisions were set to sunset in four years; however, it was reauthorized in 2006. And, on May 26, 2011, President Barack Obama signed another four-year extension of its key provisions.

Other than an old flintlock, there are no weapons in my house. Apart from a brief period in the U.S. Army, I have never fired a weapon. Nevertheless, the right to bear arms is an intrinsic right of our citizens and one supported by the Second Amendment. And I strongly support the notion that, in the case of a crime or an accident, it is almost never the inanimate weapon that is at fault; the fault lies with the bearer, or the owner. Thus, it was interesting, amusing and a little frightening to read of Professor David Kopel’s recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Panel on the Schumer Registration and Rights Denial Bill. Mr. Kopel teaches at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. (The name “Sturm”, presumably, derives from Sturm Ruger, the manufacturer of the Ruger SR9 pistol and seventy other weapons.) Senator Schumer’s Bill appeared not only to violate the Second Amendment, but also the Fifth. When Senator Schumer seemed unaware of some of his Bill’s provisions, Professor Kopel suggested he redraft the text to reflect his intent. The Bill is still pending. Certainly, if a chip can be embedded in a credit card and car, it could be placed inside a weapon. While such a decision may be applauded by some, the consequences could be a decrease in gun sales and an increase in gun thefts.

The 2012 Defense Department Authorization bill, which the Senate is currently considering, contains a provision that would authorize the U.S. military to indefinitely detain anyone they consider to be engaged in hostilities toward the United States, without charge or trial. The provision would not restrict military detentions to people in specific countries or regions of the world and would apply to U.S. citizens living within the United States. While I agree that vigilance is critical in a world as dangerous as the one in which we live, is it worth living in a prison, even one guarded by those whom we have elected? President Abraham Lincoln did suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus in 1861, allowing the government to hold suspects indefinitely without charge, but that was during the Civil War and he was criticized at the time.

Unmanned predator drones are being used not just in theaters of war or for border surveillance, but to search out criminals on American soil. Michael C. Kostelnik, retired Air Force general and Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Custom and Border Protection, was quoted recently as saying that predator drones are flown “in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local enforcement.” Ohio Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich, with whom I don’t often agree, spoke last summer against the domestic use of predator drones: “…we have slipped into a spooky new world where joystick gods manipulating robots deal death from the skies and then go home and hug their children…The proliferation of drone technology and its inevitable extension into civilian law enforcement is a leap into the arms of Big Brother.” It is this fear of an omnipotent government that has made so popular fictional characters like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, an ex-Army MP who travels the country, courting trouble without car, cell phones or credit cards.

It may be that my words are unduly alarmist, and perhaps they are. But our democracy has always been fragile. The enormous strides in surveillance technology, the increased power of appointees within the executive branch who are not beholden to Congress, the real threat of terrorist activity and little understanding of history on the part of too many people provide risk to our individual freedoms. “Truth,” wrote George Orwell, “is treason in the empire of lies.”

We in the United States have lived free from a tyrannical government for over two hundred years. It becomes easy, therefore, to succumb to the notion that government is benevolent and can do us no harm. But the founders of our nation knew otherwise, as do millions of people today who have come here from countries that do not have our basic freedoms.

It is easy to slide insidiously into repression. Just ask Jews who lived in Germany in the early 1930s. Over the years, novelists have warned of the consequences of an expanded and centralized government. Dystopian novels like Alduos Huxley’s Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, among others, have dealt with a future in which dehumanized people led lives fearful of an all-knowing and all-powerful government. Technology and surveillance systems today have rendered such possibilities as probabilities. The fear of terrorism has made us more willing to tolerate increased government intrusion. Predator drones attack our enemies without putting our soldiers at physical risk, seemingly inconsistent with their job description. There is no halting technological development, nor should there be. Nevertheless, the risk of an unscrupulous person gaining power exists. Our democracy is based on a system of checks and balances. However, since 1933, the executive branch of our government has assumed increasing powers – today manifested in the 38 “czars” working in the Obama Administration – 33 of whom function without Senate confirmation.

In the wake of Communism in Russia and Nazis in Germany, Sinclair Lewis titled his 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. So far it hasn’t, but that is no reason to let down our guard.


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