Citizenfour may have won at the Oscars, but its subject, Edward Snowden, has lost.
That’s the big takeaway from last week’s CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. When it comes to mass surveillance—despite the strenuous efforts of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and others—establishment Democrats have simply shut down internal political opposition to the spying state. On the right, where libertarian idealism and conservative paranoia still thrive, Snowden’s spirit, if not always his means, stood more of a chance to catch on.
Until, it would seem, now.
At one CPAC panel, former National Security Agency head Gen. Michael Hayden drew cries of disbelief when he called himself “an unrelenting libertarian.” Astonishing as his remarks may be, it’s hard not to think the groans and shouts arose because no one and nothing was there to stop Hayden from saying them.
Heckle in vain, partisans of liberty. The worm of freedom has turned. “Judging by this afternoon at CPAC and the rhetoric around ISIS,” National Review chief Rich Lowry tweeted from the conference, “the party has left behind [its] flirtation w[ith] Rand Paul-style foreign policy.”
Republicans are returning to the surveillance fold for the same reasons everyone is, worldwide. Last year, Angela Merkel warned the German Parliament that her country’s trust with the United States would have to be slowly repaired. “But the cooperation never really stopped,” as The Washington Post reported. “The public backlash over Snowden often obscured a more complicated reality for Germany and other aggrieved U.S. allies. They may be dismayed by the omnivorous nature of the intelligence apparatus the United States has built since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but they are also deeply dependent on it.”
Aren’t we all. Online, we lack the kind of robust self-defense culture that led, in meatspace of yore, to constitutional protections for those bearing arms. Helplessly dependent on government spies to combat enemies we cannot see, we have little choice but to opt in to one form or another of surveillance state. Since Snowden’s revelations, a Pew study reveals, the NSA’s approval ratings have cracked 50 percent. And in a sign of what’s to come, just over two-thirds of respondents aged 18 to 29 gave the NSA the A-OK. Fifty-five percent of those aged 30 to 49 did too.
A lot of self-esteem is on the line, here, and a lot of comfortable illusion. Surely a people resigned to data serfdom must not have their libertarian self-identification taken away, too. If the Constitution can be a living document, why can’t liberty be a living doctrine?
Indeed, this is just what General Hayden impressed upon the conservatarian faithful. His unrelenting libertarianism, he noted, had to dovetail with his four decades of personal responsibility “for another important part of [the Constitution], the part that says ‘provide for the common defense.’”
As he told students at Washington and Lee University this year, the Fourth Amendment’s bar on “unreasonable search and seizure” is itself subject to a “reasonableness” test, dictated by “the totality of circumstances in which we find ourselves in history.” Today, we find ourselves on the Internet—a place less like the world’s biggest newspaper and more like a parallel universe, connected to ours by infinite wormholes.
Fortunately, Hayden argues, our hardy Constitution can adapt, allowing leaders to adjust to unexpected threats like terror attacks that erupt into life out of the web-broth of ones and zeros. 9/11, he told W&L, “kind of took me in a direction over here, perfectly within my authority, but a different place than the one in which I was located before the attacks took place. So if we’re going to draw this line I think we have to understand that it’s kind of a movable feast here.”
Left unasked was a simple, potent question: What are you going to do about it? No, not about NSA power grabs. About Americans’ inability to defend one another, openly and successfully, against our most dangerous enemies. Savvy though you may be now about llamas and dress colors, chances are you have no answer to that question.
We often assume that technology’s blistering pace of change is the most important thing about it. Perhaps even more important is its inertia. The technological dreams of 40 years ago and more are just bearing fruit today. Those of us who think the future is now are deluding ourselves: The future was cast generations ago, in laboratories and offices where people were paid to create it. From lasers to drones to artificial intelligence and virtual reality, what strike the public as big, sudden changes have typically been common knowledge to the geniuses who developed them for years.
Until mechanics becomes popular again, and ordinary Americans reboot the practical ingenuity that made us adept at everyday life, overseers like the NSA will lap us again and again—as we struggle in vain to play catch-up with the unrelenting future.