During a big chunk of the Bush years, there was a good deal of legitimate concern about the extent to which the government was monitoring us. And then there was some flat out crazy stuff. Naomi Wolf spoke for many when she periodically would come unglued about one imagined violation or another. She would spew a lot of nonsense about how if you fly on a plane, the government would know what you read, where you’re going, who you’re visiting etc. with the smug assurance that all conspiracy theorists somehow master (watch the first 30 seconds of this if you doubt me). Often breathless front page stories about data mining and phone tapping were a regular fixture of the news cycle. There was all that nonsense — and it was nonsense — about the government monitoring libraries.
Hollywood got in on the act of course. Somewhere in the archives of NR (search functions remain, um, limited right now), there’s a great post by Mark Steyn on the lunacy of the Bourne movie universe. Because the CIA is monitoring everyone’s cell phone conversations, all you have to do is say the wrong word — in this case “Blackbriar” — and it will be only a few minutes before you hear the whump-whump of the helicopters coming to grab you or feel the thwump-thwump of silenced bullets entering your chest.
I remember riding on a bus at the Democratic Convention in Boston with a bunch of protester-delegate types. One woman, in what the Bolsheviks would have called a “good, socialist, coat” standing right next me had a big button that read “I do NOT consent to a search!” That showed the Man who was boss.
Well fast forward about a decade later, and in the same city it turns out it takes a bit more than saying the wrong word into your cell phone to get the attention of the Feds. In fact, you can go so far as to create a YouTube channel titled “Terrorists” and no one will care (It’s unknown what will happen if you create a YouTube channel titled “Blackbriar”).Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name was given to the FBI by Russian security services. They worried that he was an Islamist extremist, in part because he allegedly visited a whole bunch of terror-related sites. The FBI interviewed Tamerlan and his family. It all went nowhere, which is understandable given the circumstances in 2011.
But, the guy wasn’t on a list!
How many people could the FBI have interviewed in the Boston area as a potential terrorist? Five hundred? Five thousand? I really have no idea. But I bet you whatever the number is, it’s smaller than the number of names in the Boston PD’s mug books. Mitt Romney had binders full of women when he was governor of Massachusetts. But apparently the Massachusetts FBI field office doesn’t have binders full of potential terrorists at the ready? Or, if it does have such lists, then Tamerlan’s YouTube channel, his ominous travel, the warnings of the Russian FSB: none of these things are enough to get you on it. As a friend said to me yesterday “Who do you have to blow-up to get on a terror watch list?”
Naomi Wolf & Co. think the government cares if you fly to Scottsdale to visit your aunt Maybel. She thinks it cares — never mind knows — you’re visiting her. The truth is the FBI doesn’t seem to care if you visit Chechnya and meet with extremists.
Right now, everyone is celebrating the fact that we’re moving in the direction of the UK when it comes to surveillance video cameras monitoring the warp and woof of every day life. Well, count me out of the party. This is a sign of the success of terrorism and a few legal activists whose dislike of terrorism often seems eclipsed by their hatred of the government’s legitimate police functions. It is the logic of the TSA checkpoint applied to the whole society: Because it is politically outrageous to target, monitor or inconvenience specific people, the only solution is to target, monitor and inconvenience everybody.
The gun control debate works the same way. Because the government is — often for understandable reasons — ill-equipped, unable or unwilling to do what it takes to stop the lone madman, the “answer” is to inconvenience or infringe upon the rights of millions of law-abiding citizens. When the government fails to focus on real potential terrorists, the result is that we’re all treated at least a bit more like potential terrorists. That, it seems to me, may well be the biggest lesson of this tragic episode.