May 11, 2010

Don't give this guy his Miranda rights until we find out what it's all about. That would be a serious mistake at least until we find out as much information as we have.
- John McCain, talking about Faisal Shahzad, the would-be 2010 New York City bomber and a naturalised citizen of the United States

But tell me ... in what way am I being harmed if someone intercepts my phone call to aunt martha about her fruit cake recipe? Or a call where I'm ticked at my friend George? For crying out loud ... right or wrong, this information has been available to the feds for over 70 years! People are just now getting paranoid about it?
- A comment on a thread discussing McCain's comment, by a minister who had previously enforced the will of federal government on a nuclear submarine and is currently enforcing the will of the website owners on the linked website. The following post is reprinted from my answer there.


The concept of rights is cored in the belief that government and the instruments of government can never be trusted. The corollary is that those who have been and continue to be the instruments of government can sometimes lose touch with why those rights have come into existence.

Someone whose speech and action is permanently 100% in line with the government of the time will never be harmed and thus never have anything to fear, no matter how slippery the slope. (Unless, of course, the government begins to wonder why someone should be trying so hard to be so innocuous.)

To believe in rights at all is to waive the ability to cherrypick among rights. From FBI to local police forces, the law enforcement agencies have had immunity to prosecution from criminals for as long as they have existed: so long as procedure defined under law has been followed. Procedure usually requires a minimum of reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed: and what constitutes reasonable suspicion is also defined by law.

It may be worth noting that in law enforcement eyes, all people are potential criminals. In an individualistic society, law enforcement can only be effective with such a mindset. This is why oversight is -- must -- come from outside law enforcement. Oversight with the same bias which law enforcement must have to be effective simply cannot be a good watchdog on the actions of law enforcement.

These rights cover a great deal more than simply one person's right to due procedure upon arrest. At present, they also include the right to vote as one wishes and have it have meaning (it may have been forgotten that Communist countries held elections as well), and the right to peaceful assembly (church gatherings, Tea Parties, anti-war demonstrations in the Bush era ... as though the war were somehow over now). They even include the right of Helium to host a thread such as this one, and for debate to happen on that thread. After all, what has been said here -- and in most of this forum -- is not 100% in line with the government, any government. Yet the right to free speech allows it.

Rights issues (including interception of personal correspondence) happen to be of more concern now than ever for two reasons:

* There is more awareness of the consequences of surveillance, whether or not the subject of surveillance turns out to be innocent (see Hollywood blacklist)
* The current technology intrudes into virtually all parts of life.

Major rights concerns have been raised from about the '50s onward -- and even decades earlier, if one takes into account the civil rights and labour movements (many of which took place as part of church meetings) -- but when bugging is limited to letter-reading and planting moles in meetings, it still covers a relatively small slice of life. Unless I happened to write it in a letter or say it in public, aspects such as my super-secret rum fruitcake recipe never even made the radar.

However, current technology can pick up what we say and do everywhere, including in the privacy of our own homes. I too could not care less whether the government learns my hyper-secret rum fruitcake recipe, but I see no reason why the government should be interested in my nephew's first "facts of life" talk. If I should be angry at a friend or if that friend should tell me something in confidence, what is said is between me and that friend. For one simple but potentially devastating consequence, suppose the cause of the anger involves "don't ask, don't tell"?

If I once waive the right not to be subject to random surveillance, I cannot thereafter cherrypick what is and is not private.

To say that any such distinction ought to be irrelevant to national security is to throw out confidences of all kinds, respect for the privacy of others, even the sanctity of the confessional: not simply in actual matters of security, but in all things.

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