It was eerie to watch in light of this new world we find ourselves living in. Several protesters disrupted the French Open tennis final today between eventual champion Rafael Nadal and fellow Spaniard David Ferrer as Nadal led 5-1 in the second set already up one set to love.
Though seemingly of European ancestry, the mask-wearing protester and a compatriot were unknown quantities when the one jumped onto the court with flare in hand. Though later it was learned they were upset by recent legislation in France allowing for same-sex marriages, it was difficult not to think about the Boston Marathon bombings as anything seems possible in this troubled world.
Rafa Nadal scampered away as security wrestled the man to the ground, and extinguished his flare. The other protester was ushered from the stands in a headlock. And so here was another world-focused sporting event being compromised by political stagecraft. Where once aggrieved men would raise black-gloved fists in protests, today protests have turned to attacks as grievances have accelerated and means to redress them proliferated.
This all comes at the end of a week when the British newspaper The Guardian exposed the U.S. government’s NSA program of expanded domestic and foreign surveillance, including metadata mining of telephone carriers and internet providers. The revelation provoked a strong reaction from both sides of the political spectrum as fears mounted that the country founded on the principles of openness and individual freedom has pivoted to policies more reminiscent of an authoritarian state (Just look at the level of militarism displayed by even local police forces).
President Obama tried to assuage the public about the limits, need and efficacy of the program. Notwithstanding, there remains a sense of suspicion due not only to the secrecy of the program itself, but also to the low standing the government has held since the deceits of Vietnam, Watergate and Iran Contra.
But, kids, when Democratic President Barack Obama continues, even upgrades, a policy initiated by Republican President George W. Bush, you can be fairly sure it isn’t ideology that’s influencing him. No, he’s read the daily security briefings for four-plus years, just as Mr. Bush did before him. Though coming from opposite sides of the political divide, both men concluded that this is what engagement with the enemy must look like now — like it or not –if the safety of the nation remains the prime directive of the government.
Today, technology has blurred the borders once drawn by self-serving mapmakers. We have reached a point where the decisions of nation-states are often no longer automatically viable. Our enemies are no longer just other states, but a network, a network that, by nature, is dissolved into the solution of society, only to emerge when a precipitant of purpose and opportunity is added, as with the Chechnyan brothers at the Boston Marathon.
Such an enemy erodes the political effectiveness of an 18th century organizing principle and the need for a 20th century military capability. We may still be the strongest nation on earth, but Al-Qaeda and its myriad malformations cannot be eradicated by conventional power. Fighting such a conceptual enemy with the military hardware of a nation-state is not only an anachronism, it’s cost prohibitive and useless. Small cells of self-radicalized individuals cannot be deterred with either the tools nor rules established among state-accredited diplomats, whether in the 18th or 21st century.
But here’s the irony. In addressing the threat by suspending the ideals which were the predicate for our founding, i.e. protecting average citizens against an intrusive state power, we lose that which set us apart in the first place, even as we reveal the limits of that founding in a 21st century world of interdependence and continuing inequality. It is something akin to being hoisted on our own petard.
THE NEED TO KNOW
But what this NSA surveillance policy is really trying to keep secret isn’t so much knowledge of its own existence, but the reason for its existence. The barbarians are increasingly at the gate, as they have been since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and what the White House doesn’t want us to know is the actual level of that threat.
If we won’t be honest with ourselves, how can we hope to win the battle of ideas? That’s why Obama is trying to downplay the military war stance in public while building up the surveillance nation infrastructure in secret.
He may not be seen as a friend of Israel, but Mr. Obama seems to understand the Mossad policy of quiet Special Operations. Question is, how do we reconcile that with America’s long held sense of “Don’t Tread on Me” vis-a-vis freedom from government prying?
The message from Bush and Obama is clear enough, ‘If we don’t conduct this meta-data mining via telephone and internet communications, the odds suggest some terrorist will get through’. They already have in Boston, and those weren’t exactly master criminals at work. The threat is both existential and invisible.
Yes, we are in it for the long haul now. This is the unintended consequences of years of policy and political choices. Where oceans, wealth and surrogates were once enough to shield our shores against the nastier aspects of global conflict — and the overlay of Cold War politics helped tamp down long standing regional conflicts — with the demise of Communism, a following world shrunken by technology, and the recent flowering of the Arab Spring, the old coalition of guardians isn’t enough to protect us anymore.
What New Yorker writer George Packer calls The Unwinding has begun in earnest. Over the last sixty years our appetites have grown even as our vision has narrowed. Ronald Reagan’s beau ideal of America as the ‘Shining City on the Hill’ prevailed until the Gipper, himself, began to explode the federal debt by cutting taxes while demanding the nation fund a huge expansion of the military. Americans used to save at a 10% per annum rate before that, but when Mr. Reagan instituted rapid deficit spending, we the public followed blithely in his path.
Correspondingly, changes in public policy implemented during the 1980s marked a turning point in American domestic policy. Faced with increasing competition from overseas – as nations began to rebuild their economies laid to ruin by WWII — American business found it necessary to realign the political economy, at once weakening labor unions while teasing out the social safety net. Where once we took care of the needy, Mr. Reagan closed mental institutions and set free who knows how many hopeless cases?
Three decades later the American compact: work hard and you’ll get a job, buy a house, educate your kids, and retire with dignity has come a cropper. The world, and nation for that matter, is polarized like never before. And just as Edwin Hubbel’s 1929 discovery of the red-light shift proved that galaxies were accelerating away from one another at an ever increasing rate, so too is the center of American polity being pulled apart with alarming speed.
Thus, today’s cellular level disruptions in Boston, Paris, or anywhere indicate the need to redress the threats by means that align not just with our principles, but with our enemies’ decentralized approach. This is defense we are playing.
So yes, there has been an outcry against the invasion of the privacy of citizens, but — and here’s the ju-jitsu of the enemy — without some level of intrusion that same privacy is systematically granted and used by those who wish us harm even as they hide in plain sight amongst us.
In this week when an uncovered secret policy has again created strange bedfellows, we might not want or wish for a surveillance nation, but, really, unless we are prepared to reassess the world and our place in it, what other choice is available? The fences are being drawn in, which makes our choice of leadership that much more important going forward. Because at some point it comes down to this: Who do you trust to make these kind of calls? And if your answer is neither a Mr. Bush nor a Mr. Obama, and ‘nobody’ is your final answer, then who, really, is winning?