The public debate over government surveillance that was, if not inaugurated, at least intensified by the publication of documents provided by Edward Snowden has been, in some respects, surreal and deluded. One side claims that the NSA’s mass surveillance is necessary to protect the public from terrorism, that in fact it has thwarted many “potential terrorist events.” The other side claims, with much more justification, that bulk data collection does little or nothing to protect ordinary civilians. But few commentators draw another, more subversive conclusion: government has no interest in protecting its citizens (as such) in the first place. In fact, its interest is precisely the opposite: to expose its citizens–with privileged exceptions–to harm.
Sounds absurd, of course. But consider, first, the recent historical record, which certainly does not support the idea that the U.S. government cares about protecting Americans. Exhibit 1 is the attacks of 9/11. It became a commonplace long ago for leftists and liberals to cite the White House memo of August 6, 2001 that bore the heading “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” which was apparently ignored at the time by the Bush administration. Perhaps more damning is Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower, which made it abundantly clear that the CIA and the FBI had not prioritized the fight against terrorism even after the 1993 Twin Tower bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. If one were malicious enough, one might attribute competence to government institutions rather than mere criminal bungling: perhaps the ridiculously counterproductive–from the perspective of thwarting terrorism–organization and efforts of the CIA and FBI before 9/11 were, by some twisted institutional logic, designed to make possible precisely what happened, a major terrorist event.
Another commonplace is the observation that George W. Bush’s Iraq war, far from mitigating terrorism, increased it substantially, perhaps sevenfold. This was predictable andpredicted in 2003, a fact that, by elementary logic, means that the Bush administration at the very least was perfectly happy to expose American (and of course foreign) civilians to greater threats. The same logic applies to Obama’s global drone war, which apparently has killed 50 civilians for every 1 terrorist. Not surprisingly, it has fueled terrorism, and thus increased threats to Americans. (In fact, the drone campaign itself is terrorism, but here I am confining myself to the conventional American understanding of the word, as applying only to people that the U.S. government doesn’t like.)