When the news "broke" earlier this month that the NSA has been spying on all of us, my first impulse was to take to my paddleboard.
Escape from Big Brother's sinister monocle was the obvious intent. With only a grapefruit-flavored La Croix and a granola bar for sustenance, I paddled out and followed the tide across to Little Tybee, where there are no cell phone towers, no electricity and very little company except for a few fellow societal truants and the occasional dolphin.
Still, after I made it past the tricky current near the marsh and pulled ashore, I flipped both middle fingers to the sky, just in case any satellites happened to be passing by.
I also needed a break from the social media spazfest, as folks either panicked themselves into hyperventilation over privacy invasion or bellowed for Edward Snowden's traitorous head on a popsicle stick. But as far as I could tell, no one wanted to leave their air-conditioning to actually do anything about it.
It's always wonderful to see Americans express any kind of outrage, but I'm mystified by the sputtering shock. Corporations have been tracking our buying habits and favorite websites for years for their own gain, but no one's tearing their hair out over a Papa John's coupon floating on their screen for six months after they accidentally clicked on the website.
That our phone calls and emails have been trolled by the NSA's PRISM program as "metadata" should be news to no one. Where the hell have y'all been since 2001? That's when the Patriot Act made this kind of surveillance legal in the name of homeland security. All Eddie did was make it official.
Frankly, I've assumed that the government was all up in our business since reading George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (in the actual year 1984, which totally blew my eighth-grade mind.) Sure, I was just a disenfranchised young paranoiac back then, but I could easily imagine a future in which certain thoughts and ideas could be considered a crime — after all, Hitler had murdered six million Jews and four million communists, gays, Catholics and others deemed undesirable for their beliefs barely two generations before.
Orwell taught me that a thinking person should always be suspicious of her government. I fantasized about burning my Social Security card and moving to a yurt in the Nevada desert, where I would expose that aliens were colluding with Congress to enslave us all with drugs embedded in fast food french fries.
A few years later, when it became possible to type words into a box and send them across the world instantaneously (by magic? through a series of tubes?) of course I understood that THEY could read every word if they wanted. Hackers have existed as long as the internet itself; why wouldn't the government have the same capability to burrow into codes and extract whatever it likes?
The problem is that the government can use information it collects against its citizens, especially ones it doesn't particularly enjoy. That's not only repugnantly undemocratic, it's dangerous.
(Fortunately thus far, no one seems too interested in my affinity for sloth videos or that unpaid cable bill from 1992. On the other hand, journalist Michael Hastings was reportedly investigating the NSA for a story before his untimely death last week, so please don't be afraid to examine past Civil Society columns for clues should I disappear under mysterious circumstances.)
But honestly, haven't we seen enough bumbling nonsense by now to know that the government isn't as all-powerful as it used to be, or what we thought it used to be? Here's what's different about Hitler's Germany and the U.S.'s attempts to track down a few terrorists via what amounts to a giant vat of information soup:
The NSA uses the same internet as the rest of us. We may not have any secrets — but neither do they, for long. If Edward Snowden hadn't talked to the Guardian, someone else would have come forward soon enough. And if our personal privacy can be nullified in the name of national security, recent events show us that national security will forever be compromised by people who speak up.
In this age where our phones basically empower us as mini-media studios, information itself takes on a life of its own, beyond the control of any government. In the last two years, ordinary Arab citizens have deposed at least four despotic leaders — including the once-bionic Muammar Kaddafi, who had survived at least eight assassination attempts — with not much more than Twitter and a lot of yelling.
When the Turkish government tear-gassed thousands who were civilly protesting unchecked urban development, we saw more citizens replace them by standing immobile in silent solidarity. We watched a few days ago as a million Brazilians — a brazillion! — marched in the streets to protest government corruption and increased public transportation fares.
Information is power, and maybe that's why in spite of all the bellyaching on Facebook, Americans haven't felt the need to rise en masse and demand our Fourth Amendment rights back.
Armchair outrage may be the new black, but we already know that every word we say or write can be recorded and used against us — or for a common good. (That is, as long as the cell towers are working. Our dependence on them is a whole other level of scary.)
The truth (or someone's version of it, anyway) is already out there, and it's on Youtube: In May, conspiracy theorists everywhere danced jigs of joy when former Canadian defense minister Paul Hellyer announced calmly to members of the U.S. Senate that not only do aliens exist, there are "at least four types" and they've been plotting with a menacing shadow government made up of members of the international banking cartel.
Makes me wish I'd bought into the yurt market years ago.
It also makes me wonder if Americans will stay angry about the NSA probes and Snowden's sedition only until the next scandal or celebrity baby comes along.
There on an uninhabited barrier island with tea-colored water lapping at my toes and my iPhone across the river, the tyranny and terror of Big Brother seemed far away, a fictional nightmare even.
As I glimpsed my husband round the point in his kayak followed by my children paddling behind, I put it out of my mind entirely.
I could almost make myself believe that the only real salvation is through the relationships we cultivate face to face, and the only safe places are those we can arrive at by our own strength and grace.