Why Paris Must Wait: Responding to the NSA Controversy

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“For though I think a House, so chosen, will be very far inferior to the present Congress, will be very illy qualified to legislate for the Union, for foreign nations, etc., yet this evil does not weigh against the good of preserving inviolate the fundamental principle, that the people are not to be taxed but by representatives chosen immediately by themselves.” – Jefferson, Letter to James Madison 1787

When I began to try and think of a response to the crisis in the National Security Agency - security leaks, Edward Snowden, the call for public congressional hearings about our security agency’s access to phones and Internet connections and web servers - I was surprised to find that I reached first for my giant American Political Thoughtreader. I haven’t touched it since junior year of college, and that was only to write a paper for a different class. Locked among the tissue thin pages are the stories of a nation wrestling with its identity: from the formation of the Union to Texas joining us by treaty, from Supreme Court rulings on privacy to Vietnam War protesters. The primary sources seemed archaic, even useless, as I read stories in The Washington Post or The New York Times.

Some days I think about becoming an ex-pat. I think about moving away from the country, foregoing my absentee ballot in the even years. I think about Paris, 1920s style, even though I know that Pound and Hemingway and Fitzgerald aren’t there and my high school French is rusty. I imagine that it’d be easier over there to hear news about the National Security Agency (NSA) tapping millions of phone lines and the liberal Democrats and conservative Republican fighting over whether this reveals a “regime” inside America or a police state or whether we should press criminal charges against Snowden and not care so much. Or perhaps I imagine that if I was in Paris I could comment from afar about the dismal state of things without feeling responsible for doing anything about it.

Some days that sounds like just what I want.

But we can’t just leave for Paris. And we shouldn’t want to. We are foolish if we assume that dilemmas in government give us any permission to withdraw from its life, from the life of citizenship, from the pursuit of justice within the system we have been given and as we try to reform that system on every level. We knew what we were getting into in this business of governing – because we have known the whole time we are human, we are fallen and we are falling short. Yes, we are young, and with youth often comes idealism.

But idealism – a belief in the very best that something could be, a thriving love of the potential hidden in things – should not blind us to the reality that our standards will not always be met and our hopes will not always be realized. If anything, shouldn't this moment of dismay that the NSA is building a digital database or potentially tapping phone lines (for which they still must prove probable cause and obtain a warrant), and that Eric Snowden leaked critical security information, drive us closer to Capitol Hill, not for the first plane out of, in my case, Logan Airport?

Edward Snowden, the so-called "NSA Whistle Blower"

Edward Snowden, the so-called "NSA Whistle Blower"

Michael Gerson wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week, “Traditional conservatism recognizes the balancing of principles — in this case, security and privacy — rather than elevating a single ideal into an absolute. That balance may need occasional readjustment, based on shifting circumstances. But this requires prudence, not the breathless exaggeration of threats for political purposes.”

This applies to us, too – whatever our party affiliation or our temptation to run away to whatever other country. We are responsible for not allowing a single ideal or notion of government behavior or one particular failing to dismantle us. No one would deny that we are in a fallen system. No one can deny that any government, even one as creatively and brilliantly conceived as the US system is full of failures and facing challenges bigger than it itself can understand.

We know better than to assume that the discovery of government’s failings gives us permission to shrug off our civic life. We know better because Jefferson and Madison did, because the founders sweating somewhere in a room in Pennsylvania knew that the system would not be perfect because humans are not perfect, and wanted to preserve inviolate the more fundamental principle that we, the citizens, are the cornerstone of governance. So they shaped this government to guard this principle; now we must honor that principle by engaging all the more.

I know better than to take off for Paris.  

-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt