Little Brother is watching

April 16, 1996|By ROBERT KUTTNER

I CAME OF age worried about being blown up by a government. As a first-grader, I was trained to dive under a desk in the event of a nuclear attack. As a college sophomore, I watched an attack nearly materialize, in the Cuban missile crisis.

My generation associated technological mayhem with governments. Most of us worried about the Soviet government. Not a few worried about our own.

Today, technology is democratized, and so is mayhem. Now we worry about being blown up not by governments, but by individuals -- unabombers, anti-abortion extremists, Islamic jihaddists with designs on the World Trade Center, private militiamen targeting federal buildings.

All these people have one thing in common. They think in absolutes. Each is his own political theoretician, jury and executioner. They do not observe niceties like due process or distinguish between combatants and civilians. But in a moment of violent combustion, technology makes them the equal of sovereign states.

The relationships between liberty, technology, security and government have undergone a weird inversion. In years past, liberty-loving Americans saw government as the threat to freedom. We distrusted foreign governments and didn't much like our own. America's Constitution created gov-ernment partly to restrain government.

In this century, we uneasily ceded exceptional wartime powers to our own government, because we faced more threatening governments overseas. But we still cherished the right to be left alone, and we worried about Big Brother.

Now, however, the private anarchy that some of us mistake for freedom threatens the security, and hence the liberty, of law-abiding citizens. Technology creates new forms of liberty and equality, as millions of Internet users can testify. But it is also an equalizer when it comes to terrorism. Today's threat is Little Brother.

The mighty FBI took 17 years to capture the apparent unabomber, succeeding only because the man's brother turned him in. Paradoxically, the same proliferation of technology that portends a newly decentralized society empowers lunatics -- and thus requires more vigilant government.

As a civil-libertarian, I can feel my loyalties being strained. The old categories and tests no longer work.

As a libertarian, I bridle when government denies advanced computer technology to lawful businesses for fear that it might fall into the hands of terrorists. But as a citizen, I am aware that this is no idle worry. Outlaw states like Iran and Libya indeed sponsor terrorism, and all too competently.

As a libertarian, I resist when the national security establishment insists that telephones be designed to be tapped when necessary. But I am very grateful for the police work that tracked down the alleged unabomber and kindred fiends. And I concede, uneasily, that court-ordered wiretaps have a place in law enforcement.

Tolerable middle ground

As a libertarian, I reject censorship of any kind. But as a father who sees filth purveyed on TV, I consider the V-chip a tolerable middle ground.

Just as there is no escape from technology, there is no escape from authority. The real choice is between democratically constituted, consensual authority -- and summary justice. Government that is subject to rules and democratically accountable offers citizens a far more reliable brand of liberty than the liberty offered by anarchy.

For nearly a century, the Russians were deprived of freedom by an overarching state. Now, they are suffering the loss of freedom that comes from too weak a state. After a few years of de facto rule by local mafias, they are ready to vote the communists back in.

Our own constitutional history suggests that we had to experience a period when government was too weak to assure liberty, under the Articles of Confederation, before we wrote a Constitution that created a government of adequate strength. What good are rights, after all, if no one has the power to enforce them?

Though we may sometimes pine for the simple, anarchic state of nature imagined by the unabomber, technology and government are both here to stay. While some see technology as promising a new libertarian utopia -- the lone citizen on his mountaintop cabin with cell phone, Internet and solar-powered hot tub -- technology also exposes all of us to each other.

And just as technology creates new environmental assaults that demand regulation, it produces new political menaces that invite monitoring. Rather than fighting against regulations, ID cards and even occasional wiretaps, I prefer to fight for the kind of government that can be entrusted to use them wisely.

Robert Kuttner is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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