American people have “Joseph Welch” moment about government snooping

Have the American people just had a Joseph Welch epiphany?  A sudden realization that this time, they have gone too far, that we have let them go too far?

Welch was the lawyer who was questioning the rabidly anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy during McCarthy’s 1954 hearings to investigate communist infiltration of the Army. McCarthy told one bold-faced lie too many, accusing a perfectly innocent man, and Welch suddenly exclaimed in shock, Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

It was at that moment that America’s elected leaders and other influentials realized that the post-war witch hunt for communists and fellow travelers in American government and society had gone too far.  It was at that moment when the American people realized that we had let them take it too far.

Have we seen a “Joseph Welch” moment with the revelation that the Obama Administration has collected the metadata of phone numbers of every Verizon customer? I think everyone assumes that if the federal government has the data from Verizon, then it has it from every other telephone company. The most shocking part of the revelation of mass snooping is that everyone agrees that it’s absolutely legal, thanks to the Patriot Act, which Congress keeps renewing.

Will we as a nation now put more pressure on Congress to rescind the Patriot Act or rethink many of its provisions? Will right-wing Republicans finally recognize the inherent contradiction in their national security positions, that they call for less government interference in our personal lives and then support these assaults on personal liberty?  Will Democrats no longer cravenly cave into every demand for greater spying, warrantless searches, drone killings and invasions built on fantasy premises?

Let’s hope so, because collecting and analyzing the metadata of all of our phone calls is a monstrous invasion of privacy. Collection of metadata is ripe for abuse by both the federal government and individuals.

Obama’s excuse is that computers are sifting through the information, not humans, and that no one is listening to the contents of the phone calls.  Note the clever rhetorical misdirection that the President employs. He wants us to focus on what they’re not doing (or say they’re not doing), so we’ll forget what they are doing.  But there is so much information that we can gain from knowing whom you called, who called you and where and when all the parties were at the time of the call.  What if some future Joe McCarthy with access to the files wants to investigate Nation or Jewish Currents? What if the president wants to gather evidence about every major donor to the campaign of a potential rival?  Couldn’t this metadata be used to help plan the assassination of a foreign leader.

This gross invasion of privacy—this pilfering of civil and human rights—predates the Obama Administration. Obama apologists say at least it’s not torture and at least he didn’t start a war (at least not yet: Syria awaits.) It’s the same type of misdirection.

Let’s not focus on what the Obama Administration isn’t doing. Let’s focus on what it is doing, and although it may be legal, it is not right and it offends the sensibilities of many, if not most Americans.

It’s time for a total repeal of the Patriot Act.




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