Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

For a conservative who seeks to conserve the tradition of constitutional liberty bequeathed to Americans by their Founders, the spectacle of self-sworn apostles of liberty in the so-called “conservative” media calling for Edward Snowden’s head on a platter is a painful one to behold. Yet neither is this sight particularly gratifying to those of us who prize sober thinking, for the logic underwriting these calls is as woeful as the rhetoric is irrational.

If, as Snowden (to say nothing of legions of other Americans) believes, the NSA has acted unconstitutionally, this means that it has acted illegally, for the Constitution is the fundamental law of the land.  Those (including sympathizers like Rand Paul) who think that Snowden should be punished for “violating” his contractual obligations as a government employee speak nonsense, for no employee, in any profession, is legally bound to perpetrate, either directly or obliquely, an illegality.  It is exactly and only because Snowden believed that the NSA was acting illegally (unconstitutionally) that he blew the whistle in the first place.

To accuse him of being a traitor or criminal is to beg the question here.

To the objection that no federal court that has looked at the NSA’s methods have yet found them to be in circumvention of the Constitution, we need only note that the objection boils down to this: the federal government has declared that the federal government is acting constitutionally.

The objectors should take our reply for what it’s worth as they ponder that the federal courts have also declared the constitutional rights of slave masters to their slaves, women to abortion on demand, and state governments to force racial segregation.

This notion that Snowden is a “traitor” is also puzzling.  Who did he betray, and how did he betray them?

Millions upon millions of American citizens not only don’t feel betrayed by Snowden; they regard him as a hero for bringing to their attention something to which they would have otherwise remained oblivious.  Yet let’s set this aside and assume that Snowden’s detractors mean to say that he betrayed his country by weakening the government’s ability to keep Americans safe.  This notion is deeply problematic in its own right.

It’s not clear how Snowden could have compromised the government’s ability to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, for the very idea is inconsistent with Snowden’s enemies’ contention that the NSA is constitutionally sound.  In other words, if, as they maintain, there is nothing in the least bit either morally or legally objectionable about the NSA, then the latter should be able to keep right on course.  

If, pre-Snowden, the NSA was able to keep us safe from terrorist attacks by accessing countless millions of phone records, and if there is nothing unconstitutional about this, then, post-Snowden, it should be able to continue keeping us safe from terrorist attacks by accessing countless millions of phone records.

That scores of Americans and others from around the world now know what the NSA has been doing all along is, or at least should be, neither here nor there—if it was never doing anything wrong in the first place. For if it was never acting impermissibly to begin with, there is nothing that it needs to change—regardless of whether American citizens like it or not.

Snowden observed and reported what he thought was one of the greatest acts of theft in our country’s history, a crime by which the federal government attempted to deprive this generation and their posterity of their birthright, the liberty for which their fathers sacrificed all and which they codified in the Constitution that they ratified. 

But, the Snowden haters insist, there was no crime.  Two things here should be borne in mind.

First, even if this is true, it certainly isn’t obviously true.  Or, rather, it is “obviously” true only to Republicans, for if it was so clear that Snowden was off base, then, presumably, the federal government wouldn’t be launching investigations into its own activities and huge numbers of Americans—including office holders in the federal government itself—wouldn’t agree with Snowden that a crime has been done.

Second, even if there is no crime here, that, as I just noted, it is not at all obvious that there isn’t, should serve to relieve Snowden of much of the scorn that’s being heaped upon him.  Just because one can’t be certain that it is a mugging that’s occurring in the dark alleyway doesn’t mean that one hasn’t a responsibility to notify the authorities.  Snowden acted responsibly.

But he didn’t, his opponents maintain. He could’ve notified his superiors about his concerns.  Instead, he chose to go public with them.

To think about this last objection for more than a few seconds is to realize that it is on a par with demanding of a witness to a crime that he first go and register his complaint with the alleged criminal.

Snowden deserves to be thanked for stirring up an especially spirited national conversation over the relationship between security and liberty.  Yet maybe time will also prove us to be in his debt for stirring up a national conversation over the relationship between ideological rhetoric and clear thought.

For the latter I won’t hold my breath.    

On Tuesday, January 7, I had the pleasure and the privilege of being a guest on the nationally syndicated radio show of the honorable Mike Gallagher. 

My host had read a recent piece of mine, “How ‘Conservatives’ Help the Left,” in which, as he rightly noted, I lambast him a bit for comments he made concerning the whole NSA scandal.  I argued that it is not the NSA’s critics who, contra Gallagher, are of like mind with such leftists as the New York Times editors who support Edward Snowden.  Rather, it is Gallagher and all self-declared “conservatives” who support the NSA who are guilty of allying with such leftists as Barack Obama, as robust a defender of the NSA as anyone and the guy for whom the leftist editors of the Times are not, in this instance, running cover.

So, we must ask, why is it that Obama and his minions supply such unqualified support for this massive government agency empowered to examine the phone records and conversations of all American citizens?

The answer, I argued, is that the NSA is Big Government.  But it’s more than just Big Government.  It is Gargantuan Government. In fact, it is Omnipotent Government. 

In other words, the NSA is the epitome of exactly the kind of government that our forefathers, those men who ratified the Constitution of the United States, dreaded.  And it emblematizes exactly the kind of government for which hard leftists like Obama ache.

It is the ultimate symbol of exactly that kind of government required for the successful completion of the quintessential leftist project to “fundamentally transform” America.

But, the objection goes, the all encompassing surveillance mechanisms of the NSA are necessary in order to keep Americans safe from terrorist attacks. A few replies to this line are in order.

First, whether the immense government system under question actually has thwarted potential terrorist attacks is itself open to question.  It is imperative that all liberty lovers bear in mind that the only “evidence” for the claim that the government has been successful toward this end is the word of politicians—i.e. government agents. 

So, we are expected to trust that the government is not abusing its power because the government assures us that it is not.

True believers in Big Government can buy this line.  Proponents of “limited government,” however, can only greet it with mocking laughter.  More than anyone else, the lover of liberty knows that regardless of the individual politicians or party in power, power, as the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once remarked, exists to be abused. And the larger the concentration of power, the more susceptible to abuse it is.

Second, let’s just assume that, not implausibly, the NSA has indeed saved lives.  Does it then follow that its existence is justified?

It does not. 

If the NSA is justified because it has saved lives, then any course of action or expansion of government is justified if it saves lives.  Consider, how many women’s lives could have been spared the fatal ravages of domestic violence if only the government had installed surveillance devices in every home shared by partners or spouses throughout the country? If the ends always justify the means, as NSA supporters imply, this hypothetical program would be no less justified than the NSA, for it too saves lives.

Or consider that for years we’ve known that the threat of death does not deter Islamic terrorists who eagerly anticipate martyrdom.  What if we could save lives by abducting, mutilating, and raping these terrorists’ female relatives, from their great grandmothers to their daughters?  That this will serve as at least a far greater deterrent than that served by the threat to terrorists of losing only their own lives seems certain enough.  More lives will be saved by way of this policy.  Thus, such a policy, the NSA supporter must concede, would be justified.

If we could deter the murder rate—i.e. save lives—by arbitrarily selecting innocent people, framing them for murder, and then executing them, would this then be permissible?

The point is this: very few of us actually believe that the ends always justify the means. Some actions we find unacceptable even if they do save lives, for we realize that while life is a good, it is not an unqualified good, a good that we must pursue at the cost of all other goods—including and especially the good of liberty.

Those who insist that the NSA has not abused our liberty, or, like a caller to Gallagher’s show during my segment, claim that as long as one has nothing to hide, there is no cause for concern, are clueless as to the meaning and significance of their birthright.

It doesn’t matter in the least whether the NSA ever checks my phone lines or that of anyone else.  It doesn’t matter in the least whether ours is a nation of saints or whether terrorists and all dangerous people vanished from the planet tomorrow.

That the NSA possesses access to this infinitude of citizens’ information alone endangers liberty. 

Actually, the more the Mike Gallaghers of the world think about this, the more they are likely to realize that, as well as anyone, they know this, for unless they discerned the tension between the NSA’s ends and its means, there would be nothing over which to struggle.

 

Bob Grant, the one-time “king of conservative talk radio,” died this past New Year’s Eve at the age of 84.   

Born Robert Ciro Gigante, Grant had a storied career in radio spanning over six decades, and remained number one in the New York market even after friend, colleague, and admirer of Grant’s, Rush Limbaugh, took the talk radio world by storm.  As Rush once attested, there would be no “conservative” talk radio if not for Bob Grant. “Bob Grant is the king of talk radio in New York,” “one of the few talk show hosts who has lasted in combat radio. He defined it and spawned countless imitators all over the country,” Rush noted. 

Even President Reagan was among the legions of people who loved Grant’s straight shooting, going so far as to personally “salute” him for his “dedication.”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone appreciated Grant’s brutal honesty. 

In the mid-90’s, New York magazine did a hit piece on Grant, plastering his face on their cover with the words: “Why He Hates Blacks.”  Grant was devastated.  In his book, Let’s Be Heard, Grant relays what actually transpired while being interviewed for the “rag” that would besmirch him. Upon being asked as to whether he was a racist, Grant responded by saying that while he “could answer it by saying, ‘No more than you are,’” instead he will just say that “if being against affirmative action and busing, if being for civil rights for all people—including whites—makes me a racist, then I plead guilty.”

Though Grant’s remarks were a far cry from an expression of racial hatred, or any sort of hatred, his nemeses demanded his head on a platter.  Later that year, they got it.

President Clinton’s Commerce Secretary Ron Brown—a black man—was on board a plane that crashed.  Brown, along with everyone else, died.  Initially, though, reports were vague—and, as it turned out, incorrect, for the word was that there was a lone survivor.  On the air, Grant said that his “hunch” was that Brown was the survivor. Grant attributed this intuition of his to the fact that, “at heart,” he was a “pessimist.”  

Under the pressure or race activists, WABC fired their most popular talk show host. Soon after, though, he was hired by WOR—another New York mega-station.  

Grant’s opposition to leftist nonsense was second to none—and he never hesitated to let this fact be known in no uncertain terms. Yet he also wasn’t reluctant to criticize his colleagues on the right and in talk radio.

He loved Rush Limbaugh (and years later, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin).  But in his 1996 book, Grant includes the chapter, “Ten Conservatives We Can Live Without.” Here he describes Bill Bennett as “a smart man with a keen mind and the manners of a bull in a china shop.” Bennett, along with Jack Kemp—another “conservative” who “we can live without”—attempted to defeat Proposition 187, a California initiative designed to prevent illegal aliens from availing themselves of all state social services.  Bennett, Grant writes, “hurt the valid conservative cause of limiting immigration, and he brought aid and comfort to those twin hazards, Dianne Feinstein and Kathleen Brown.”  

Pat Robertson, Ollie North, George Will, and G. Gordon Liddy are some others who Grant takes to task.

Interestingly, the one person on the right for whom he reserved the harshest condemnation is none other than Dennis Prager. 

During the controversy that New York magazine manufactured, Grant admits to feeling lower than any at other point in his life.  He had refused to do any more interviews—until Prager, who was not yet a syndicated talk radio host, invited Grant to appear on his Los Angeles television show. Because Prager was, as Grant understood him, “a fairly conservative fellow,” and because they even shared the same manager, Grant agreed to do the show.

He writes: “My understanding was that we were going to discuss the thing as two colleagues—you know, ‘Hey Bob, how do you feel about all this ruckus?’”  Instead, Prager held up “the damned magazine cover and then proceed[ed] to recite the slanderous charges against me exactly as they were made: ‘He’s called blacks savages! He’s done this! He’s done that! Bob—what do you say about it?’”  Even worse, Prager brought on a representative of the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP, a person who, according to Grant, had “more genuine hatred for me than any other human being in the world today.”

Grant admitted that “it’s hard to imagine anything worse than being on that show that night.”  He called it “a total and complete hatchet job,” and referred to Prager as “a son of a bitch and a snake.”

With Grant’s judgments, reasonable people can take exception.  But no one can disagree with the verdict that he was one of a kind, and that the media are not likely to see the likes of his honesty, courage, and passion ever again.

 

 

 

On Friday, January 3, radio talk show host Mike Gallagher charged NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden with being a “traitor” while accusing those of his conservative minded listeners who disagreed with thinking like leftists.

Self-avowed “conservatives,” like Gallagher, are, at best, morally confused.  At worst, they’re intellectually dishonest. Either way, whether they realize it or not, they are accomplices to the left’s efforts to “fundamentally transform” Western culture.

Regardless of one’s opinions of Snowden the man, the fact remains that he succeeded in calling the nation’s attention to a massive government surveillance program to which most Americans would have otherwise remained oblivious, a program that enables the government to collect information on citizens while bypassing the Fourth Amendment.  That this gargantuan apparatus—the emblem par excellence of just the sort of omnipotent government that our Founding Fathers envisioned with dread, just the sort of liberty-crushing central authority that the Constitution was ratified to preclude—exists, ostensibly, for “our own good,” is neither here nor there.

That it exists is, or at least should be, troubling enough for any lover of liberty.

Even if, per impossible, the NSA never abused its awesome powers, even if it had a perfect track record of thwarting terrorist attacks, that it could deploy its resources to violate the privacy of American citizens is alone sufficient to paralyze the liberty lover with the fear that his government has betrayed the dream and promise of his forefathers.

The true lover of liberty knows that of which the Framers of the Constitution needed no reminding: there is no such thing as liberty. 

There are only liberties. 

Moreover, these liberties are but the flip side of the duties that our Constitution imposes upon the government—the federal, as opposed to a national, government.

By way of its many “checks and balances,” the Constitution of the United States codifies a complex set of political arrangements that severely limits both the authority and the power of the government.  Its Bill of Rights was intended to further immunize the citizen against potential abuses of his government.

Interestingly, it is Gallagher and company, not their conservative rivals, who are guilty of allying with the left.     

First of all, there is no getting around the stone-cold fact that the term “Big Government” applies to nothing if it doesn’t apply to the NSA’s surveillance system.  In other words, no one can credibly claim to oppose “Big Government” who isn’t profoundly troubled by the existence of the NSA.  That Gallagher and his ilk not only support the NSA, but enthusiastically support it, proves that they are just as prone to Big Government as are Barack Obama and his fellow partisans who also defend the NSA.

Second, Gallagher reiterated today that we remain in a war.  Note, as long as self-styled “conservatives” insist that we are in a “war” on “terror” or “terrorists,” they would have us all think that we are in a war without end.  Such a notion, infinitely more so than any other, invites endless government growth: nothing is more amenable to Big Government than war.

This “War on Terror” that Gallagher and his colleagues unfailingly invoke whenever the government’s endeavors to “keep us safe,” however constitutionally suspect these endeavors may be, are brought into question is music to the ears of Big Government leftists like Obama.  Under the pretext of “national security,” Obama, or any other champion of Big Government, can justify, or try to justify, virtually anything.  As we’ve seen, this has already happened with the NSA itself.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who already distrusts Big Government.  Think about it: with the exception of anarchists, everyone else accepts that among the legitimate functions of government, providing for the national defense ranks at the top of the list. Furthermore, everyone knows that government has a propensity to perpetuate itself.  Thus, what better way for office holders at the federal level to strengthen and enlarge the federal government than by having everyone else believe that there is a state of perpetual war?

Neither the conservative movement nor the Republican Party promises to make any gains as long as its representatives fail to recognize two things.

First, Americans long ago grew cold on their “war on terror,” an interminable government exercise in the social engineering of foreign lands that has already come at the cost of far too much blood, treasure, and liberty. 

Second, exactly because of the inexhaustible expansion of the scope and power of the national government that this “war” requires, these voices for “conservatism” and the GOP are actually doing much of the left’s work for it as they empower the government further by supplying a catch-all rationale for the project to  “fundamentally transform” America.