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Big Brother is watching — so why don't we care?

Commentary: Threat of terrorism seems to outweigh concern of infringement on personal liberties.
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A notice from FEMA for assistance hangs on a window in the heavily damaged Rockaway neighborhood, where a large section of the iconic boardwalk was washed away on November 19, 2012 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/AFP/Getty Images)

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — So, it turns out, Big Brother is indeed watching. But, ho hum, who cares?

CNN interviewed random people to get public reaction to news the US government is storing our phone records and reviewing our Internet exchanges. While some of those interviewed reacted negatively, the majority were supportive. One interviewee best summed up the overall reaction: "Doesn't surprise me. I assumed they were doing that." What else is new?

Two strands of American behavior seem to have coalesced to produce this laid-back response. First of all, since 9/11, the public has apparently bought into the premise that the threat of terrorism outweighs any personal inconvenience or infringement on our personal liberties.

Never mind, as we all know, that more people are killed by lightning each year or by slipping in the bathtub than by terrorism, the specter of 9/11 has produced a mindset that basically accepts any government activity if it can be related to the terrorism threat.

The second strand is harder to pinpoint: is it a pervasive belief that our democracy is sufficiently good -- not perfect, but good enough -- that there's nothing to complain about? The weakening of the Tea Party movement and the total demise of Occupy Wall Street would seem to support this. Or is it that the public is so wrapped up in the minutiae of their own lives that Washington is almost irrelevant? What, after all, are we to make of a country that's still focusing on ice hockey and basketball in June?

There are obvious dangers to government monitoring of our communications.

During the McCarthy era, the FBI spied on suspected communists, many of whom weren't but whose lives were ruined anyway; J. Edgar Hoover, when he ran the FBI, notoriously managed the information his agency had collected on public figures to keep himself in power; intelligence-gathering was used to intimidate both civil rights workers and Vietnam War activists, and Nixon, quite apart from Watergate, used his office to wiretap and collect intelligence against perceived enemies.

Ironically, as a Foreign Affairs blog pointed out, in his book published just before the revelation of how closely Google and other technology firms coordinate with the government, Google chair Eric Schmidt warned about the dangers of Big Data surveillance: "Governments operating surveillance platforms will surely violate restrictions placed on them (by legislation or legal ruling) eventually." And: "Perhaps a fully integrated information system, with all manner of data inputs, software that can interpret and predict behavior, and humans at the controls, is simply too powerful for anyone to handle responsibly."

To his credit -- or perhaps just a nod to his political acumen — President Obama has pledged that he welcomes public discussion of the issue. And leading congressmen espouse the same sentiment, aware that there's a Catch-22 element in suggesting a public debate over classified information.

But so long as the public sees it as pretty much a non-issue, it's unlikely there will be much of a demand for extensive public disclosure. Hundreds of thousands of Turks have been demonstrating because their increasingly authoritarian government wants to cut down a few old trees in downtown Istanbul. Steps taken by ours, surely a greater authoritarian threat, leave us indifferent.

Which begs the question: is public apathy a positive reflection of our government's ability to hold its citizens' trust? Or a negative reflection of our citizens' lack of interest in what our government is doing to oversee our lives. If it is the latter, is this a long-term danger for our democracy?

If you go back half a century, the American public was even more trusting of — or apathetic about — its government. Polls in early 1965, a little over a year after JFK's assassination — the most traumatic event for Americans between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 — indicated that 75 percent of the public believed they "could trust government to do the right thing most of the time."

This was surely the high-water mark for confidence in Washington: the era when Ozzie and Harriet were an evening's entertainment at home or, if you felt like stepping out, "The Sound of Music" was playing at the local movie theatre. College guys wore ties and jackets to class, sported short hair, disdained beards. And their carefully chaperoned weekend dates had never heard of The Pill.

Then came Selma and increasing civil rights violence, a gradual escalation and then a rapid acceleration of the Vietnam War, the murders of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, Nixon's ascension, violent anti-war protests and the Kent State killings, then Watergate.

Reagan gave us, briefly, "morning in America," but Iran-Contra and the Nicaragua scandal as well. George H.W. Bush's success against Saddam Hussein was such a short-lived phenomenon that it didn't even get him re-elected.

Clinton's imperial behavior in the Oval Office with Monica was matched by the Republicans' cynical vote for his impeachment. We rallied strongly around Bush Jr. after 9/11, but the revelation of how intelligence manipulation got us into the Iraq War disaster was another kick in the gut. Perhaps in reaction, we elected a black president, a significant achievement considering that 45 years earlier less than one-third of eligible blacks were permitted to vote in the Deep South.

But Obama's been a disappointment, above all to his supporters; Congress's approval ratings remain in the single digits. It's been a rough half-century. If polled today, the percentage of people that say they "trust government most of the time" would probably be half of what it was in 1965.

So, how is it that we react with a yawn to Big Brother meets The Computer Age? Is it because we're so shopworn we're no longer surprised by whatever the government does? Or because we've been so brainwashed in the aftermath of 9/11 we accept anything if we're told it involves the fight against terrorism? Or because the Washington of our youth, those halcyon days of the early '60s, is now so remote as to be barely remembered? Or because, indeed it's been a rough five decades, and we just want a little peace and quiet?

Perhaps a Dylan Thomas refrain helps explain it.

"Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."


Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East. dispatches/globalpost-blogs/commentary/big-brother-government-america-cnn-terrorism