May 29, 2014


Two big stories -- Edward Snowden's release of government secrets and Elliot Rodger's deadly rampage in California -- raise serious questions about privacy. Where do we draw the line between our right as individuals to live free from undue governmental intrusion and the rights of the many -- acting through the agency of the government -- to protect themselves from the acts of an individual (or group) intent on doing harm to others?

Maybe the better question to ask is not how much freedom are we willing to give up to feel safe, but how much risk are we willing to take to feel free. That used to be an easier question when violence was mainly the result of criminal activity or crimes of passion. Most of us can live with that level of risk. It gets harder when you throw in cold-blooded attacks that have no basis other than hate, no purpose other than to inflict maximum casualties.

Edward Snowden came to see the electronic spying carried out by NSA as fundamentally unconstitutional. After his attempts to raise questions through channels proved fruitless, he loaded up a few thumb drives worth of sensitive documents and fled the country, where he began the selective release of information aimed at casting light on the extensive nature of NSA's data-gathering operations. Clearly he broke the law, but equally clearly he disclosed a range of activities that have provoked an intense national debate on just how far the government can and should go to gather information that might prevent another terrorist attack.

An equally intense debate has focused on the events leading up to Elliot Rodger's killing spree that resulted in six people dead and several more wounded. This young man was a walking time bomb, no question about it. His family knew it, as did his therapist. Both tried to warn police. But strict laws prevent the detention of an individual merely because he might do something bad. Prosecutors say their hands are tied by the law, which basically puts the decision to declare oneself a danger to society or oneself in the hands of the person under suspicion.

The need for some level of intelligence gathering, electronic or otherwise, seems obvious. And it would be nice to think that anyone mentally ill to the point of being dangerous would somehow be confined to a treatment facility until the danger passed. I remain conflicted on both issues.

Much as I am reluctant to admit it, Snowden's basic contention has merit. He argues that the NSA spying was and is profoundly unconstitutional and that it was his duty and his right to bring it to light. In this case, I think he was right to blow the whistle. That said, secrecy remains a vital part of intelligence work -- their right to privacy, if you will -- and we can't have people willy-nilly deciding that certain secrets shouldn't be kept.

As for the horrors of public mass shootings that seem to come almost daily now, other than the obvious issue of selling guns pretty much to anyone who walks through the door, I have no answers. The situations are as unique and as complicated as our humanity. I think we can all agree that sending cops to do a "welfare check" is clearly not adequate. Putting people in institutions just because we think they might be a danger to themselves or others is a civil liberties nightmare.  Singling out those who seek therapy doesn't seem the way to go, either. Maybe we just need to listen harder to what families have to say. If your own mother thinks you are a danger, then that should tell you something.

In both cases, drawing the line is proving difficult, maybe impossible. Maybe that is as it should be. These are not easy questions, so it is unreasonable to expect easy answers. That won't stop the politicians and the pundits from looking for the perfect sound bite, especially in an election year.

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