William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.
George Orwell is having a good week.
So is Aldous Huxley.
They're the two British authors most often cited for their predictive powers in penning "1984" and "Brave New World," respectively, whenever news about creepy government spying leaks.
But it's an Albert Brooks movie, a neighbor suggested this week, that may better capture the essence of the latest scary news -- that the National Security Administration is amassing all-encompassing digital files on each and every one us.
According to reports broken by the Guardian and The Washington Post, the NSA, under the unassailable guise of counter-terrorism, appears to be capturing, or working on capturing, all the data available on every American and storing it just in case they ever need to investigate one of us. As Elspeth Reeve writes in The Atlantic Wire, "Basically everything we say that can be traced digitally is being collected by the NSA."
This letter "b" -- indeed this and every sentence I am now writing -- is allegedly being stored under a file marked "William F. B. O'Reilly," or some numerical attachment to that name. The fact that you, dear appreciated reader, are reading these words is being stored as well as, allegedly, will be your comments if you choose to razz or applaud me at the column's close. (I'll assume, as always, that any vile stuff is geared toward the NSA folks and not me.)
Every keystroke one types; every telephone call one makes; everywhere one goes carrying a telephone or other tracking device; every store purchase, permit filed or online questionnaire completed -- all of it is being gathered into an individualized file. Step out of line in some way that triggers investigation, and that entire file can potentially be pulled and queried.
June 8, 2013? Let see what we have here...
Purgatory is depicted in Brooks' 1991 classic, "Defending Your Life," as a place where one is forced to account for all of one's actions. If a panel of judges approves how you've lived, it's on the bus to heaven. Thumbs down and you're recycled into another life. In the film, Brooks is hilariously forced to submit to daily sessions depicting video snippets from his past demonstrations of cowardice.
But there's nothing funny about what the NSA is assembling. "Defending Your Life" could one day digress into a Arthur Koestler "Darkness at Noon" scenario, where one is interrogated until deemed guilty of something.
Who among us has lived the perfect life? Who hasn't written an email or two that couldn't be made to sound sinister in a courtroom or on a tabloid cover? Who hasn't ... well, never mind.
I don't worry especially about the Obama administration having my data. As much as I may disagree with it philosophically, I'm not expecting to be picked off the street and tossed into the back of a van quite yet. But history demands that we acknowledge a tendency among governments to abuse the powers they're granted, sometimes in egregious ways -- and often in the name of good.
Those who tend to view government as a benevolent force always in need of expansion might want to pen through the pages of Koestler, Solzhenitsyn or those written by survivors of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime, which executed people simply for being educated. Imagine how much easier the selection job would have been with NSA-like data. As Reeve puts it in that Atlantic Wire piece, "Technology has made it possible for the American government to spy on citizens to an extent East Germany could only dream of."
But then we go back to the Boston bombers. Once those crockpots blew, Americans didn't care how we got the bad guys, we just wanted them gotten.
This will be a very difficult genie to stuff back in the bottle.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.