The NSA spying scandal, which initially broke late last year, is in the news again as it was revealed that the government is snooping into the phone records of tens of millions of Americans. Defenders of the Bush Administration will once again deny that innocent Americans are being spied on. Then they will make excuses for this massive invasion of privacy. They will split hairs over technical legalities, much like Bill Clinton did with the word "is". They will say that previous Presidents have done something similar. Then they will say the Commander in Chief has inherent authority to spy on the American people.
But the very idea of the Administration doing this, with at least some public support, is revealing. Americans have grown used to the Police State, and many think it's a good thing. They don't mind silly procedures like taking their shoes off at airports to prevent another shoe bomb. They watch movies and tv shows in which young men are often rounded up and searched for drugs by the "good guy" cops. They applaud sending people like Martha Stewart to jail even when they've committed no crime. They either do not see that our free society is slipping away, or they simply do not want it.
A free society has certain characteristics. Some of these are respect for privacy, presumption of innocence, and judging actions instead of situations.
Privacy. The Fourth Amendment says:
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
Some people say that using the highways, or the Internet, is a "privilege, not a right," as if a person is free only when he is confined in his own home. But the Fourth Amendment protects persons, papers, and effects, not just houses.
Many people also have the attitude of, "I have nothing to hide." But why shouldn't people have things to hide? Privacy means the right to not be watched. Behavior changes when others are watching. Who we call on the phone, what we'd pack in our luggage, what we'd write in the email, what we keep in the car, how much we withdraw from the bank – all that would change if government officials had the right to eavesdrop on our communications and search our possessions and records. For the same reason toilets in public restrooms are hidden in stalls, we don't want strangers looking through our belongings or listening in on our conversations.
For instance, let's say Jack has a good friend named Omar, who has family and acquaintances connected to a fundamentalist Mosque. Omar's number is tapped because of some calls he had made to people who know people who know people with alleged "terrorist"links. Omar also understands Jack's deadpan sense of humor and often plays along. In a phone conversation, Jack complains about taxes and says "Maybe we should blow up the Capitol." The wiretapper would think, "They sound serious!" Rather than risk being tortured in Guantanomo Bay, it's safer to avoid Omar.
In this way, the government's Big Brother spying is an intrusion into our freedom. Though the police may never come for us, we are still not free.
Presumption of innocence.
Trust is an important concept in a free society. To the extent the people can be trusted to be generally law-abiding, peaceful, and responsible, the more they will be left alone. And even if humans are inherently evil and shouldn't be trusted, that is all the more reason to limit and control the government.
In general, trust means the presumption of innocence. It goes beyond the rights of the accused in a court of law. Many people say "If I'm not doing anything wrong, I have nothing to fear." But the principle in a free society is that because you're not doing anything wrong, you shouldn't have to prove it. You shouldn't have to prove you're a legal American resident by, for instance, being forced to carry an ID card to go anywhere or do anything. When people are forced to explain their actions and relationships, they are not free.
Judging actions instead of situations.
I was walking home one evening long ago when a police car pulled up. The cop got out and searched me for drugs. He said that some guy in the back seat of the cop car said I had some drugs. I was polite and cooperative (and had nothing on me), and soon on my way. Now, if there was a murderer whose physical description matched my own, I could see why I would be questioned by police, and even brought in for a witness line-up. I wouldn't take any of that personally. But there's a huge difference between killing someone, and merely possessing something. Even if I was carrying drugs, that didn't mean I was going to do anybody harm. A society that refuses to see this distinction isn't free.
There is an obsession in America for addressing the "root cause" of various social problems. This has led to the criminalizing of activities in which no one is involuntarily hurt. If people who use a certain substance are statistically more likely to cause accidents or get involved in crime, that becomes an excuse to violate the privacy and civil liberties of users who never hurt anybody. Get rid of the drugs, get rid of the crime, is the logic. (Or, get rid of the guns, get rid of the violence.) But prohibition creates black markets, which lead to even more crime. In a free society, people aren't arrested for what they own or use, but only for their acts of force and fraud against their fellow human beings.
Following these three principles will lead to the repeal of volumes of unnecessary and harmful laws and regulations. It would also lead to more efficient and effective law enforcement, which will keep us safer. To value one of these principles is to value all of them. Whereas, a culture that disregards one will disregard all. And this is where America is at today. When deference to police and obedience to authority is valued more than individual rights, society is no longer free.