NSA: Lessons from the '60s

History and experience teach us to mistrust the state and view its abuses with cool contempt

Published June 20, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

Tuesday a reader wrote with concerns about how NSA spying revelations have affected his feelings about America. I said that I wanted to take two or three days to answer. It's a big subject, how we feel about the country we live in, and how events change those feelings.

When I was 14 it was 1967 and the Vietnam War was in the newspapers and on TV every day. American males were required to register for the draft when they reached 18; many were being drafted to fight in Vietnam. My brother turned 18 and was drafted. He refused induction and fought it in the courts. It then transpired that the FBI was watching our house and following my brother. There was evidence that our phone was being tapped. It appeared that the power of the state had been turned against us.

The power of the state was turned against many of us in those days. So we grew up with a reasonable respect for the power of the state and a reasonable and mature sense of the state as a dangerous entity that, if it turned against one, could be deadly.

Then in the early 1970s we watched the Watergate scandal unfold. We saw and heard how lawless and criminal were the thoughts and actions of our highest government officials. We realized that the men and women who occupied positions in government could behave like criminals or saints and we would never know until their actions were exposed. Exposure might happen through accident, through diligent reporting or through whistle-blowing.

Events of the 1960s and 1970s showed that anything is possible in American government. It showed that the state is a dangerous entity and that our romantic notions about America need serious critique.

What we learned through news reports and our own experience was one thing. What we had been taught in school was another. The contrast between the two was so great that it began to seem that much of our education had been little more than indoctrination -- saying the Pledge of Allegiance, singing the National Anthem, studying politicians of the 18th and 19th centuries as though they were figures from the Bible! We learned through hard experience, by being tear gassed and shot at by agents of our own government, that the state is a murderous entity. And we learned through news reports that the inner workings of the government could often resemble more the machinations of a criminal enterprise than the deliberations of an august body of statesmen.

This sense of the state as a criminal, murderous entity remains. How could it not? We were formed by this history.

So it is no surprise when abuses occur. Rather, it is to be expected.

Therefore, to address the letter writer -- "Lost" -- I would say the following:

I suggest that you work hard to develop a mature understanding of the modern American state. I don't need to go into detail here about its crimes and misadventures. Ample material is available at any library. You need not become a radical. But you need an adult and nuanced conception of the state's capacity for good and evil. You need not immerse yourself in its history of crimes and secrecy. But you must recognize the state as a dangerous entity of unimaginable power, one that pursues its interests with zeal and intensity and often in secret.

I say this because it sounds like you have idealized the state in a somewhat romantic-sounding way. This troubles me because it sounds like the result of propaganda and conditioning. It makes me wonder where you went to school and where you were raised.

It also gives rise to a question that I would ordinarily never ask of anyone who wrote to me for advice. I raise it here to underline the seriousness of the matter at hand.

It is my policy to take every person's letter at face value. People in a free and open society ought to be presumed to be telling the truth. This may be just the truth of their own experience but it is the truth to them. This is how we ought to act in a free and open society. Because of this practice, I have occasionally been duped. That does not bother me so much. I take it in the spirit of ribald play that is part of the delight of journalistic and literary life.

But in this case, it is not unreasonable to ask whether your letter itself is genuine. We must not limit our imaginations in this regard. In its attempts to stifle dissent and disrupt political activity, the FBI has cultivated journalists as informers, planted stories, falsified records and forged letters as standard practice. Read Seth Rosenfeld's excellent book "Subversives" for a vivid and gripping portrait of the FBI's activities in Berkeley.

This, to me, is the terrible thing about government secrecy --  that it casts a pall over the land. The social cost of government secrecy is mistrust -- not only citizens' mistrust of the government but citizens' mistrust of each other.

Why do I not seem more outraged? Well, I can say honestly of my own experience, at nearly 60 years of age, having been both a naive patriot and a self-described revolutionary, having loved this country and hated this country in equal measure, having despaired over America's crimes and delighted in its unique and unqualified successes, that I have arrived at something like sad, serene detachment from American affairs of state. I watch as if from a great distance a familiar play, a tragedy whose outlines we all know.

I will say more about this tomorrow.

By Cary Tennis

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