Saturday, June 8, 2013

Cozy Bubble (In the category of Be Where You Are.) [#52Weeks]

I’m a military brat (Dad was in the Navy), so I come to the opinions I am about to share from the point of view of a “brat.” If you are a “brat” too, then you understand what that means. If you don’t understand, you may be a “civilian” (non-military folk). As a “brat,” to me, civilians were the people whose rights my dad went away six months at a time to defend. I’m not trying to sound divisive, swear to God, but childhood is different for military brats.

Early on, military brats learn a few things that civilians don’t have to learn (although some do anyway). For one, I knew from a young age that the “Powers That Be” (a.k.a. Uncle Sam, the Government, Dad’s boss) had complete control over what happened to Dad, and he was powerless to protest. The Navy said move, we moved (three times before I reached age five). The Navy said deploy, he deployed. The Navy said fly “listening” missions over Cambodia, he flew. I grew up believing my Dad spent the Vietnam war sitting on a naval base in San Diego, CA while we missed him from Virginia Beach, VA. Dad couldn’t tell us the truth.

I also learned very young that the “Powers That Be” watch your every move and take notes, so act accordingly. Presidential white glove inspections? Yep, those were real, and my dusting job had better pass muster. A permanent record of my every misdeed that could be held against me at any time in my life? That was real too, so watch it kid! To me, the government was a sort of less-friendly Santa Claus who knew if I had been bad or good but would not bring gifts if I behaved well, only punishing lumps of coal for my high crimes and misdemeanors.

All military brats (as well as some civilians) are taught to say “sir” and “ma’am” always, automatically, without thinking, to any older person, or else... . In my house, use of the honorific was non-negotiable, and failure to adhere to protocol was met with stiff retribution. Habits like that are hard to break, but I’ve noticed that people are sometimes offended or annoyed if I call them one or the other. Why? It’s just manners, an assumption that you are worthy of respect. Why would you argue with that? But I digress.

Last week, the military brat in me felt perplexed by the national outrage that erupted over allegations that the Internal Revenue Service might be screwing with people or organizations because of political motives. That’s standard operating procedure, isn’t it? It’s the Government. They do what they wish, and our protests are pointless. Get used to it. (Seriously, part of me still awaits the I.R.S. audit letter I’ve got coming after I spent several months bad-mouthing that worthless House Speaker, John Boehner, on Twitter.) I’m pretty sure this abuse of power is a standard perk of the job, like the now-defunct buckets of ice and whatever equally silly thing replaced them, and interns. To me, it explains why no one wants to quit Congress once they get elected.

(NOTE: I fully comprehend the public outrage over wasteful spending at I.R.S. conferences. The dancing in that one video was atrocious! No one needed to see that shit. And whoever owns the rights to Gene Roddenberry’s creation REALLY needs to sue for the use of Star Trek imagery in the second video...of course that could get them audited...)

I’m equally bemused by the furor over revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) court-orders telecoms to grant them access to monitor mountains of metadata about our calling habits and Internet usage. It’s as if people don’t believe the NSA could get this information without a court order. They can. They always could. It was friendly of them to get the court order, a formality – surprisingly transparent behavior for our top spy agency. I’d be shocked if this was limited to Verizon customers. I guess that plucky journalists have yet to uncover the court orders issued to Sprint, nTelos and AT&T.

None of this is news. It isn’t new; it’s been going on for years, as others have already pointed out. If you feel shocked by all this, you’ve been living in a cozy bubble of blissful naïveté. Internet privacy? Don’t be ridiculous. You never had it and you never will. (Hell, you can’t even convince me the postal service hasn’t been randomly reading our mail all these years. I’m a military brat.) There are surveillance cameras everywhere these days, a valuable thing to remember, as even children must learn.

During my godson’s last year in elementary school (he's a rising high school senior now), he was caught with drawings of something inappropriate for A) his age; B) lunch time and C) the back cover of his friend’s spiral notebook. When the lunchroom monitor confronted him, he did what seemed like the sensible thing and denied he drew the artwork. A true and loyal friend (and the owner of the notebook) stepped up to claim responsibility (albeit erroneously). But here in the 21st century, even the lunchrooms of elementary schools in small mountain towns are fully covered by surveillance video cameras.

I feel sure the Principal was kind but stern when he called my godson into his office to discuss the matter. “Answer me truthfully, son. Did you draw these?”

I can visualize the cherubic face puckering, the golden locks waving as his head shook, “No, sir. It wasn’t me.”

I imagine the Principal grimaced as he reached over to hit the play button. The video recorded in the lunchroom by the security cameras clearly showed my godson drawing one penis after another on the back of the notebook. I can still empathetically experience the sinking feeling that must have overwhelmed the lad as he confronted two harsh realities: First, he had just been caught flat out lying to the Principal about whether or not the phallic art was his handiwork. Second, and I sincerely hope this was his takeaway: They are watching. They are always watching. Act accordingly.

I saw a Tweet the other day that gave me pause. It read, “Al-Qaeda was much more insightful than us. They planted seeds of fear and now watch as we fertilize, water, and grow their garden.” I agree with the image, although I am not sure I would have chosen the word “insightful,” which to me suggests deliberateness. I think this collective fear, which we continue to nurture, is an unintended happy consequence for Al-Qaeda – icing on the cake if you will. It’s true that the fear we developed after the September 11 attacks gave our Government the impetus and opportunity to pass legislation that systematically strips us of our constitutional fourth amendment protections. (It may interest you to learn that at no point does the Constitution guarantee a right to "privacy." If you don't believe me, search the text yourself.) But I think the only true change was transparency. The Government now admits that this goes on (when they have to). We’ve allowed them to pass laws that make this perfectly acceptable. Why then do we act surprised when they do it? If my opinion is correct, this has actually been going on for your entire life. And how has it affected you?

Admit it, it probably hasn’t.

Unless you are spying for a foreign country or actually plotting a terrorist attack, the reality of this metadata monitoring has had zero impact on how you comport yourself either publicly or privately. It hasn’t cost you a job, your freedom, your friends or your family. (If you work, it has cost you a few tax dollars, but you knew that already.) I can’t say that the intrusion made you any safer, but it probably hasn’t informed your essence. It has likely failed to overtly shape your gestalt or define your overall political views. It didn't help you cultivate your prejudices or change your level of tolerance toward your fellow man. It won’t impact what turns you on or turns you off.

It might affect how you feel about your Government, now that the cozy bubble has burst. Whether or not it will get you audited by the I.R.S.? Well that is another matter altogether.


[Postscript: Most civilian technological advancements begin as military applications; the NSA gets all the cool gadgets first, and they use them to spy. Back in the late 1990s I met some guys from the NSA at SatCon Expo, a telecommunications industry trade show that was being held in Washington D.C. The company I worked for at the time sold high speed fiber optic video/audio/data links to the NSA, who happened to be showing the links off in their booth. Very nice guys, kind of nerdy -- they seemed a bit nervous around me. Until they started demonstrating their new toy, a fiber optic video/audio/data feed (provided by our links...remember, this is pre commercial Wi-Fi) from the NSA facility in Fort Meade, MD to the show floor that allowed them to activate cameras on a satellite in outer space. I watched somewhat horrified as, after providing my address, they zoomed in directly on the house where I lived. We call this Google Earth now, but at the time, it was for spies only. Makes you wonder what toys the kids at the NSA are playing with today.]

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