Friday, February 29, 2008

If We Scare People Enough, Maybe They'll Be Willing to Sacrifice the Bill of Rights

A truly frightening commercial has been airing over the last week or so, in which the US House of Representatives is lambasted for "crippling" surveillance efforts against terrorists. The commercial is not frightening because of the content of the allegations made; rather, the commercial is frightening because the allegations are made, despite their falsity and the inaccuracy of the statements in the commercial. The commercial can be seen on YouTube (for those who haven't seen it):



I'd planned to write about everything that was wrong with this commercial, but I was beaten to the punch by FactCheck.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group. Please take a look at FactCheck.org's examination of this misleading commercial.

One has to wonder why so many media outlets have been willing to air this commercial. More importantly, think what this commercial really says about the ongoing dispute in our country, both in terms of the debate over the balance between civil rights and protection from terrorism, but also in terms of the opposed viewpoints of those who are willing to forego your liberty in the name of security or those who believe that we can be secure while maintaining the individual rights and liberties that make us so different from so much of the rest of the world. Unfortunately, rather than engaging in principled debate where the issues are examined honestly, one side has resorted to name-calling, fear-mongering, and lies. That is not how the democratic process is supposed to work, but then laws that take away individual liberty is not how the democratic process is supposed to work either.

One final point: The one thing that keeps getting left out of the discussion is the real point of dissension between the House and Senate versions of the anti-terrorist surveillance legislation. Republicans and the Bush administration are pushing very hard for retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government's illegal wiretapping.

First, the notion of granting retroactive immunity just sounds wrong, especially when the immunity is to cover potential issues arising out of the government's own illegal activity. In other words, the Bush administration wants telecommunications companies to get a free pass for improperly granting access to private information that was being sought illegally by the government. Is that the way your America works?

Second, if anti-terrorist surveillance legislation is really that important, then why not pass the legislation without the retroactive telecommunications immunity. Pass legislation that is "needed" to keep the country safe, and then worry about the telecommunications industry separately. Or, perhaps, to the Republicans and the Bush administration, the real issue isn't safety at all, but, rather, corporate profits. Best not to think that way, right? Then again, does anybody remember Haliburton? Perhaps I'm just cynical, but I find it hard to attribute good motives to the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans given their past acts.

I have a bad feeling that we're going to see more and more of this kind of advertisement (remember the Swift Boat campaign from 2004?) as the election gets closer. When people begin to make decisions and pressure their elected representatives on the basis of fraudulent fear-mongering like this, it will truly be a sad day for American democracy. Let's home that day has not come.

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