Libertarian television show host John Stossel, and liberal creator of the acclaimed HBO series The Wire David Simon have reacted to the National Security Agency (NSA) spying scandal in a similar fashion – -namely, they suggest we stop worrying about it so much since there are worse things in the world.
This reaction is almost understandable given some of the salient points they raise after this terrible one.
On occasion, libertarians and rabble-rousing peaceniks are criticized for, say, reacting to a domestic tragedy such as the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting by pointing out how little Americans seem to care about such bloodshed when it happens abroad — and worse, when it happens because of their own government’s actions. This is an arguably callous reaction, but it raises an unquestionably important question — why are some tragedies, atrocities, or oppressions worse than others?
The news media will — thankfully — cover something as undeniable as the NSA spying when the story falls into their laps. They are much worse at covering policy-evil. That is, much of what the federal government does every day. Wars, scores of thousands of troops all over the world, the drug war and the prison industrial complex at home; all of these are a constant in the world, and the harm they do is much more clear-cut than even the most insidious spying program.
And so, it’s not a bad thing that Stossel and Simon used the NSA scandal to remind readers about the constant misery of the drug war. You know, that monstrous policy which, in spite of Gil Kerlikowske, Eric Holder, or Bill Maher’s pronouncements, is far from over. Simon, whose The Wire is beloved by libertarians due to its bleak portrayal of policing, political corruption, and the war on drugs has written a great deal about the NSA revelations. Much of it was…weird. The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf has been deftly responding to some of the more muddled, communitarian, NSA-and-government-trusting nonsense coming from Simon.
But within his tidal wave of text, Simon also points out that the kinds of violations that your average middle class white person may suddenly worry over with this spying have been rampant for decades thanks to the war on drugs — and the victims there have largely been poor minorities.
On this same topic of not caring about the NSA scandal, John Stossel last week wrote a bizarre, weak piece about how he already assumed his privacy was gone so he can’t summon the energy to care about this spying. (Stossel also added that the U.S.’s shaky economic situation is also more serious than the scandal. Which one could argue is true, but that too is a subtle slide into disaster. War and prisons are happening right this second, and their victims are suffering in ways that don’t require an understanding of free market fundamentals to comprehend.) Two days ago the mustached Fox Business host followed that up with a piece on how “The Drug War Is Worse Than NSA Spying”. Within that column Stossel’s most relevant point is that “we’ve become accustomed to the older abuses” like the war on drugs. True, and so important. Maybe it’s okay to use current outrages to remind people of older, more entrenched ones, no?
(Sadly Stossel, like Simon, could use some more general distrust of government. In his first NSA piece he managed to disparage the government, scorn excessive military spending, and still lazily write “terrorists do want to murder us. If the NSA is halfway competent, Big Data should help detect plots.”)
And so when Simon, with understandable frustration, asks where white people’s rage over privacy was for the past forty years while minorities were drowning under the war on drugs, we should sympathize. But if Simon cares about that, he might remember that plenty of minorities also suffer under the war on terrors’ clunky dragnets. Ask Muslim communities in New York City how much they value their lost privacy in the wake of the NYPD’s massive spying campaign. Hell, ask the people lingering in Gitmo after more than a decade whether worry over spying is the privilege of white, middle-class Americans. No matter how many Johnny-come-latelys appear, full of righteous Fourth Amendment-loving outrage, due to Eric Snowden and others’ leaks, and no matter how tempting it might be to yell, “where the hell have you been?!” the point still stands — we’re all going to suffer from the powers of the NSA if we don’t check them now. The existence of worse violations is not a reason to dismiss pretty-damn-bad ones. Libertarians and people empathetic enough to write about the nastiness of the drug war should know this better than anyone.