Contradictions in cultural values are common. We often value things that are at odds with each other. Some are fundamental values like our fierce defense of independence coupled with an intense commitment to family. And others are more subtle like when we condemn shoplifting and then steal a bunch of those awesome little shampoo bottles from our hotel.
Lately I have noticed the articulation of two conflicting values in American culture: Security and Privacy. First, we want guaranteed safety and happiness— I mean, it’s in the constitution right? And further, we expect the government to go to whatever lengths necessary to assure that us that we get that secure life. Secondly, we value and treasure our privacy—both as a legal matter that assures our security against potentially corrupt government and as a matter of principle and propriety (which I think still holds true despite the abundance of volunteered private information to be found on social media). Both of these values have been the basis of intense media outrage brought about by current events in the United States.
When Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly detonated two pressure cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon last April, the American public was outraged to learn that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had previously come to the FBI’s attention in other cases and that the Russian government had notified the U.S of Tsarnaev’s radicalizing activities. How did we miss this? Isn’t our government supposed to prevent such attacks through surveillance and preemptive investigation? We felt that the government and the FBI had let us down. Although it seems that the FBI did what it was legally permitted to do and then closed the case when there was insufficient evidence of terrorist or illegal intentions, the American public still demanded an explanation of the FBI’s failure. There was even a hearing held on Capitol Hill in which the FBI had to explain how Tsarnaev had managed to slip through the cracks. We seemed to feel that the FBI should have done whatever necessary to identify these future terrorists. The prevention of any terrorist event takes precedent over proper and legal procedure (such as leaving people alone when they are determined to not be a threat).
And yet, when Edward Snowden clued us all in to the fact that the NSA has been keeping track of our phone activities, we were outraged (never mind that this is the same type of surveillance we expect the government to use to ensure us that we never fall victim to terrorist acts). Isn’t our privacy something that is both sacred and legally protected? Like I hope that many of you do, I worry about this surveillance as a potential violation of the 1st and 4th Amendments. But it is also true that in the hands of government agencies, this is powerful information used to protect our nation and citizens. That guarantee of safety comes at a cost. Remember, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a U.S. citizen. The government either has the right to survey its citizens (and suspend the rights of citizenship after arrest) or it doesn’t. In the information age, Security and Privacy are intimately tied. We have to give a little of one to get more of the other. We simply can’t have our cake and eat it too.