June 18, 2013

The high cost of a false sense of security

For the last week I have been listening to establishment politicians, Republican and Democrat, attempting to justify the NSA’s PRISM program [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PRISM_(surveillance_program) ] on the grounds that it helps prevent acts of terrorism. No doubt is does. What we should be asking ourselves, however, is how much security we are gaining for the surrender of both our immediate privacy and the possible eventual surrender of the rest of our freedom.

The total number of American civilians killed by Al Qaida related terrorists thus far has amounted to a little over 3000 – almost all of them killed during the attacks of 9/11. The US population stands at over 300,000,000 so, in rough terms, your odds of having been an American civilian killed by Al Qaida terrorists stands at about 1-in-100,000. To put this into perspective, nearly 500,000 Americans have died in auto accidents since 2001 – about 1-in-600 of the population.

If we assume the elimination of PRISM and other forms of mass surveillance would increase our individual risk by a factor of ten – to 1-in-10,000 – I would still quite willingly accept that risk against the unknown but historically plausible risk of seeing our republic degenerate into a totalitarian police state. Against that latter risk, Edward Snowden has staked his life. Like Patrick Henry, he has thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of us – “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

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