COLUMN: Freedom or safety, we can’t have both

The case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – who revealed the US government was spying on its own citizens – has ignited quite a debate.

The democratized world is at a crossroads, in which one route leads to freedom, the other to safety.

Embracing one comes at the expense of the other, and neither includes guarantees.

Such has become even more evident as we argue over the actions of National Security Association whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed last month that his own U.S. government was spying en masse on its citizens’ electronic communications and on its economic partners.

The debate crosses party lines, with nearly equal numbers throughout the political spectrum calling his actions either heroic or treasonous.

For many, loss of freedoms is far worse than a potential risk of our security. They heed the witch hunts of the past; they bemoan an Orwellian present; and they fear a dystopian future.

For others, giving up personal privacy is the price of protection in these turbulent times. They encourage the government to monitor our texts, emails and conversations, ensuring it’s on record who the bad guys are.

Both sides have merit. Yet both scare the hell out of me.

I don’t understand those who put all their faith in officials; so many conversations and deals are made behind the scenes. Nor do I understand faith in the rabble; again, you and I aren’t privy to the shenanigans of our leaders – self-appointed or otherwise.

Individually, we are so consumed with our own thoughts and fears that it barely registers that the enemy is already at both sides of the gate.

Most of us will agree there’s a price to pay for living in a civilized society. We obey its laws, we follow protocol and we understand that free speech and other rights have their limits.

Yet, those who have faith in the leaders of the so-called free world would do well to remember these 14 words uttered again and again not so long ago: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Despite extremes in their partisan views, it wouldn’t be difficult – depending on which country you’re in and who’s in charge at any given moment – to imagine the word “Communist” replaced with “Labour…” Or “Liberal…” Or “Tea…”

Thanks to advances in technology, they no longer have to ask – and you certainly don’t need to tell – to have your politics, your faith and your sexuality on display behind what are, for now, closed doors.

Then again, do we really want independent whistleblowers like NSA leaker Snowden, U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to decide our individual and collective fates?

Does it make sense that military secrets are transmitted to the masses, potentially endangering our loved ones? Should all investigative techniques be made public, driving would-be terrorists deeper underground?

In the days since last spring’s Boston Marathon bombing, we’ve heard of at least two planned terror attacks on Canadian soil – and others abroad – that were reportedly thwarted, in part, by surveillance and subterfuge.

In each case, cyberspace teemed with speculation and condemnation from all sides, questioning the veracity of official and unofficial accounts, labelling one another conspiracists and patsies, and accusing each other of groupthink.

Those same texts, tweets and posts are, no doubt, being filed away – along with our phone records – for later analyses, thanks to elected leaders that have lied for a greater good.

The question is clear: Do we trust the anarchists or our governments?

In one of these worlds, people fear misinformation; in the other, they fear too much information.

If you can answer unequivocally and without hesitation, you just might want to keep your thoughts to yourself.

Lance Peverley is editor of the Peace Arch News.

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