Even as protesters in cities across the United States took to the streets last week to denounce domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency, more Americans in a new poll said NSA leaker Edward Snowden was wrong to release information on the spying program. Underlying the debate is a fundamental question: How much trust -- and mistrust -- toward government is too much?
As Americans whose national existence began with defiance of a powerful state and was cemented with a constitutional system of checks and balances, we have a tradition of not trusting government. And that's good. Our elected leaders are not benevolent parents but flawed humans who need oversight from representatives, courts and a skeptical free press.
Yet at some point, vigilance crosses the line into paranoia. Today, many on the right think it's self-evident (except to the hopelessly naive) that NSA monitoring data has been misused for nefarious political purposes by the Obama administration. Some, including talk show host Glenn Beck, speculate that it may have been used to blackmail Chief Justice John Roberts into upholding President Barack Obama's health care law. Others are convinced that, with the administration claiming the prerogative to use drone strikes against terrorists who are U.S. citizens, drones will soon come for tea party activists.
Liberals who scoff at these right-wing follies often forget Bush-era kookiness on the left. The administration's arguments for detaining prisoners classed as "enemy combatants" were viewed as harbingers of gulags for dissidents. Acclaimed writer and former Al Gore adviser Naomi Wolf warned that then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was being groomed to preside over "the coming American police state" and accused Big Brother of intercepting Wolf's 13-year-old daughter's mail from summer camp.
Mostly, this is partisan paranoia. A president from the "other" team is not just a politico you consider wrong, inept or even dishonest, but a fascist or communist usurper seeking to destroy America as we know it. Those from your own party who cooperate with him are dupes or traitors.
But sometimes, reflexive hostility to government is a more consistent ideological position. For extreme leftists, no matter who occupies the White House, America is a capitalist oppressor state with a sham democracy. For extreme libertarians -- probably far more numerous today than extreme leftists -- government itself is an evil institution, its tyranny effectively unchecked because politicians and public officials in every branch protect the state's interests over those of individuals.
While healthy vigilance helps ensure both civil rights and public accountability, paranoia ultimately undermines them. Even the most limited government must provide for the common defense; in the age of terrorism, this requires at least some surveillance. Is there a need for better oversight of these programs and stronger privacy safeguards? Absolutely. Yet reform must start with the understanding that "homeland security" is not just a cliche but a vital need.
In nearly 12 years of life after Sept. 11, there has not been a single known instance, under either the Bush or the Obama administration, of surveillance or other antiterrorism policies used to squelch dissent or harass political opponents (and, in today's media environment, it would be near-impossible to hide such abuses for long). Yes, it could happen; hence the need for more effective safeguards. But the track record so far should remind us that comparisons to totalitarian police states are absurd.
Libertarians who cherish the American tradition should be particularly wary of rhetoric that blurs the difference between imperfect liberal democracies and dictatorial regimes. Let us by all means be wary and critical of government overreach -- but not to the point of making common cause with radical leftists who see America as an evil empire with no right to self-defense.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.