An Open Letter To President Obama

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges, to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.” – President Obama, response to reporter when asked about PRISM.

Is this double-speak? By one reading, Mr. President, you are admitting that it is the duty of the executive, legislative and judicial branches to behave in such a way as to merit confidence from their constituencies, and you are warning that the cohesion of our society rests on their ability to do right by us. By another, it is imploring us to hand you the reigns and bury our heads in the sand, and you are offering an implicit threat that failing to do so will have dire consequences for us. Was this speech given as a criticism of corrupt officials? No – it was delivered in defense of wiretapping. Not just wiretapping, but a massive, comprehensive compromising of our privacy rights – with ‘oversight’ that is as opaque and secretive as the surveillance itself. You seem to be claiming that the people involved in this secret surveillance program – and those in charge of secretly deciding where to infiltrate – are necessarily good, honest people. That these are people we can and should trust with this power. Not only that, but you are suggesting that it was an offense against us (and a crime against the nation) that someone with knowledge of this process would bring it to our attention.

Congratulations, Mr. President; regardless of which reading we take, you have correctly identified the problem. The American People, those folks that elected you back into office, that you and every other politician claim to care so deeply about and have such immense respect for, do not and can not trust you, your administration, their representatives in congress, or the existing justice system on a whole. That is a really big problem.

This is not a matter of “left versus right”; these are not “fringe elements” – this is mainstream opinion. This isn’t something that’s been fed to people through corporate media outlets; this is not a basic misunderstanding of current affairs; this is a rational conclusion based on all of the information available to the people. It’s a conclusion based on an awareness of historical precedent and present political realities. It’s the fundamental problem that led so many of us to join the Tea Party and Occupy movements. It is more important to us as a people than gay marriage or abortion or welfare or even the environment and regulatory bodies — more important than taxes. It is fundamental. We cannot even begin to address these very real issues, because our trust in our government has been so eroded over recent decades.

Why can’t we trust Congress? Let’s just take a look at their track record, shall we? Even when the people send strong messages through elections, the same kinds of terrible legislation is churned out year after year (or no legislation, which seems more common as time goes on). We don’t have to see how it’s made to know the sausage is rancid. If the proof of this horrible blood pudding is in the tasting, it’s not at all unreasonable for us to conclude that something has gone terribly wrong with the process. And when we look closer, when we subject ourselves to visions from the floor of the abattoir, when we elect to ask how the sausage is made – what we see is as absurd as it is disgusting. Congresspersons routinely step down over personal scandals that reveal their flawed humanity, but rarely do any resign over mismanagement or failure to meet their duties. For that matter, when was the last time more than a handful of representatives spoke out against the influence the private sector has over public policy, or advocated for making /fewer/ things illegal? These might not be majority opinions, but the viewpoints are vastly under-represented in the halls of congress.

The most important thing, however, is that we fundamentally cannot trust Congress because they prevent us from voting with a full understanding of what they’re doing. We have access to their voting records, but in closed door meetings and secret committees they make decisions that drastically affect the lives of every American, and we have no idea what calls they’re making. How can we make it clear to Congress that SECURITY IS ALWAYS LESS IMPORTANT THAN LIBERTY if we never see who it is that is making the wrong call and vote them out? Ultimately, that is what this comes down to.

Mr. President, you were the strong coffee to our drunken binge of post 9-11 neo-conservativism. We were sick of people who were willing to exploit fear in order to accomplish their own goals; we finally got wise to the game of promising ‘security’ as a means of eroding the fundamental rights set forth in the Constitution. We sent you to office with a wildly Democratic majority in Congress, and we asked you all to fix it.

You didn’t.

You left Gitmo open, you kept domestic spying operations in place, you aggressively attacked whistle-blowers time and time again instead of punishing the crimes that they exposed. You expanded drone strikes. That’s not what we asked for, and it’s not what you promised. I don’t care what you did accomplish, these things are deplorable. And you don’t care. You hide behind the fact that these actions are ‘legal’, ignoring the reality that the laws were written and interpreted specifically to permit these actions without regard for their morality.

Let’s just take a look at what the justice system has been up to lately, shall we? Deric Lostutter (KYAnonymous) is facing ten years for allegedly hacking a football team’s website, while the football players he exposed got only a year or two for repeatedly raping an unconscious, underage girl. Barrett Brown is facing over a hundred years in jail for the dangerous crimes of sharing links that had been repeatedly published by major news organizations, shoving his laptop in the sink, and making an angry YouTube video at someone who threatened his mom. Ezekiel Gilbert is a free man, because judge and jury agreed with him that it’s okay to kill an escort if you thought $150 bought you her body and not just her company. These are not the decisions of a healthy or sane justice system, nor are they isolated incidents.

We don’t want perfect security, Mr. President. We don’t want it because it doesn’t exist; it is a pipe dream that has, throughout history, been used to deceive populations into voting away their freedom.

What we do want is /reasonable/ security. We want to know that punishment for criminal acts will be rational and proportional to the severity of a crime – rather than a factor of who we pissed off or how badly the prosecution wants us to plead out. We want to know that speaking out against injustice will not be punished while evil-doers are free to carry on their abuses. We want to know that our government will not rummage through our lives without probable cause, that our bridges won’t collapse from a lack of maintenance and that our water won’t catch fire out of the tap.

I live in Boston, Mr. President. I have a close friend that was at Copley Square. She suffered a concussion from the shockwave. I tell you this because you need to understand that I am not unaware of the reality of terrorist attacks. I am not sitting in some ivory tower unaffected by the threats of the real world. But the fact is, no amount of spying on your citizens (and the Internet at large) will ever prevent every bad thing from happening. And even if it could, it’s not what we believe in. We know that freedom is risky, but the cost of freedom isn’t sending our young men and women to die in the desert somewhere; it’s knowing that some people will be pissed off at us from time to time and they might attempt to attack us, and some people might die. Yeah, it sucks. Abandoning everything the Bill of Rights stands for is orders of magnitude worse. Frankly, I believe that operating within the standards set forth in the Bill of Rights will greatly diminish the number of people who feel motivated to kill us. You’re a constitutional scholar, Mr. President. I’m sure you’ve taken notice of the fact that the word ‘Citizen’ does not appear in the protections granted in the first ten amendments (making the citizen/non-citizen distinction with respect to drone strikes entirely moot). You and I both wish to see our nation return to the status as a ‘Light on a Hill’; I’m of the belief that strictly adhering to the values set forth by the founding fathers would be a great first step.

We all have to die of something. I’d rather get blown up in a free society than die of cancer in a civilization where it is impossible to cast an informed vote.