Main point: The debate over whether the US government should continue to conduct surveillance of mobile phone and internet activity should be solved by having a national vote.
As a U.S. citizen overseas, I often get the nasty receiving end of U.S. policies which people in other countries don’t like. If I happen to be the token American around, people seize the opportunity to tell me how much they dislike a particular American policy. Europeans or Australians, a well-educated lot who were raised to expect that their rights and civil liberties be respected are usually the most likely to raise these points. Among the points that they often raise are Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, the invasion of Iraq, the general U.S. policy of thinking that it should “police” the world, interference in other countries’ affairs, etc.
I’ve been hiding out lately, knowing that I’d be a sure target after news broke of the secret PRISM program, in which a US government agency is secretly monitoring everyone’s mobile phone communications. Later, allegations were made that internet activity is also being monitored. This issue is sure to rile up non-U.S. citizens, as claims have been made that it doesn’t target US citizens, but targets everyone else. Many people abroad, no doubt feeling innocent and wrongly targeted, will probably feel resentment that they are being monitored by a foreign government. Of course, they also feel that it makes the US look pretty hypocritical, since the US often professes to be promoting human rights, but then appears to be violating people’s right to privacy. Much criticism has been leveled at the U.S. in China, for example, after the news broke.
Reaction in Washington has been mixed. Some representatives have criticized the practice, while others have defended it. The Obama administration has defended the program. And it turns out that a Senate Intelligence Committee has been approving it all along.
My analysis is that beneath all of this is a fear among leaders in Washington that they will be blamed if there are terrorist attacks in the U.S. In order to avoid being blamed for a terrorist attack, U.S. government leaders have developed all kinds of elaborate ways to attempt to prevent terror attacks. Of course, we all are very familiar with the inconvenient searches we are subject to when we board a flight in the U.S.
I would propose that, rather than governing on the people’s behalf, and assuming people want their privacy invaded in order to prevent terror attacks, that the government just put it up to a vote. Every adult citizen has one vote.
You decide: would you rather have your privacy, and the increased chance of a terror attack, or would you rather give up your privacy and have more security?
Once the people have decided, then they can’t blame their representatives or the President’s administration for any attacks. They have only themselves to blame.
Another vote to confirm the referendum/initiative could be held two or four years later to see if people had changed their mind, based on experience.
Of course, this is currently impossible in the U.S. because there is no national level referendum. There are only state referendums in some states.
But this example illustrates how easy it would be to solve a difficult public issue if reforms were made creating a national referendum. Representatives would no longer need to do what they think people want them to do on key issues. Rather, the people can just decide for themselves.
For all of America’s talk about democracy, the country still just doesn’t seem ready to let the people decide on major issues that affect everyone.
Of course I may be wrong in my analysis. It may be that it’s not fear on the part of government leaders, but rather it’s some zealous, rogue part of the administration that is carrying on a crusade of its own accord. Its certainly possible that the real culprit is some corner of the U.S. government that has determined that this is the right thing to do, and they just keep carrying on with it, despite everyone else’s interest. Heck, there could even be some economic motive involved: lucrative contracts?
Anyway, for some reason, the issue of democratic reform doesn’t seem to be high on most people’s list at this juncture. Most people are just cruising along, taking little action even though they fundamentally don’t like certain things that are happening. Democratic/electoral reform in the U.S. could certainly be used in some areas, especially controlling the role of money in elections. Creating a national initiative would be another.
Note: The blog post above represents solely the opinion of the author and does not represent any organizational affiliation.