Gazillions. That’s the number of times the federal government has spied on Americans since 9/11 through the use of drones, legal search warrants, illegal search warrants, federal agent-written search warrants and just plain government spying. This is according to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who, when he asked the government to tell him what it was doing to violate our privacy, was given a classified briefing. The senator – one of just a few in the U.S. Senate who believes that the Constitution means what it says – was required by federal law to agree not to reveal what spies and bureaucrats told him during the briefing.
The rules for classified briefings of members of Congress on areas of government behavior that the government wants to keep from its employers – the American people – are a real catch-22. Those rules allow representatives and senators to interrogate government officials about government behavior they are afraid to reveal, and they require those officials to answer honestly and completely. But the rules keep the interrogations secret, and they expressly prohibit members of Congress from telling anyone what they have learned.
So Paul and his colleagues who joined in the secret briefing now know the terrible truth about the government watching us, but they cannot reveal what they know. Paul – who is the son of Rep. Ron Paul, the greatest congressional defender of limited government in our era – when asked what he learned at these secret briefings and aware that he could be prosecuted for telling the truth, chose a fictitious word to describe the vast number of violations of privacy at the hands of federal agents: gazillions. Paul’s personal courage in using a word like gazillions to convey an oblique message of truth in the face of an unjust law that commanded his silence reminded me of St. Thomas More’s silence in the face of an unjust law that commanded his assent to the king’s headship of the church.
The feds are no happier with the senator’s personal courage than the king was with St. Thomas More’s, but there is not much they can do about it. If you check out your dog-eared dictionary, you will find that if it is listed at all, it gets a mention as slang. Yet most of us hearing or seeing that word understand it to mean some huge – perhaps even incalculable – number.
The point here is terrifying. If the government derives its powers from the consent of the governed, how can it do things to us to which we have not consented? And when it does these things – like send a drone over your back yard to learn who is coming to your Saturday barbeque or to see what fertilizer you are using in your vegetable garden or to take a peek into your living room or bedroom – and when the laws the government has written prevent our elected representatives from telling us what it is doing, we are at the doorsteps of tyranny. The government gave Paul the distinct impression that it was afraid of our exercise of our personal freedoms, and thus it needs to watch us as we do so. This is the same government whose stated principal purpose is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and thus personal freedom.
What has become of the Jeffersonian value of the primacy of the individual over the government in a free society? How have we lost the American value that the government works for us, and we don’t work for the government? What remains of the constitutionally guaranteed right to be left alone?
The answer to these questions goes to the nature of human freedom and personal courage. Freedom lies in our hearts, but to survive, it must do more than just lie there. Its essence is the exercise of unfettered choices, and the unfettered choices we make address our perpetual yearning for truth. This is a natural process that – just like the muscles in our bodies – will atrophy if unused.
So, when the government scares us into the disuse of freedom, we have only ourselves to blame when Big Brother comes calling. And when he does come, on his face there will be no smile.