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Monthly Archives: August 2013

I wasn’t surprised to learn, thanks to Edward Snowden, that Uncle Sam is looking over all our shoulders. I felt him sitting on mine just because the possibility was obvious, as a piece of technical progress: whereas letters sent through the post could only be snooped on through human drudgery (as happened systematically in the GDR), electronic data storage permits total transparency at the click of a gigabyte. Whatever is possible will be done, certainly is already being done. That is why the negative freedoms guaranteed under the rule of law are important for everybody — even the “innocent”. First, the path is very short from the abrogation of abstract principles such as habeas corpus to the concrete suffering of the unjustly incarcerated. The virtue of a policeman lies not in his character or judgement but in the limits of what is permitted to him by his role. People do what they can get away with, and that is why there are rules; especially for those who enforce them. Still, one imagines suspects get beaten up in the back of the van. Secondly, the category of the innocent can shrink very rapidly (McCarthy) and is already narrow enough to be uncomfortable for some.

I share the liberal outrage and trepidation at the US’s abuse of power, but surely the horse has bolted. The question seems to me to be: how humanity can live with the possibility of total surveillance without being crushed by it — just as, to change the subject, it is inevitable there will be transgenic animals and people, and the island of Dr. Moreau will be filled with monsters. What then?
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