© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: The Price of Homeland Security

By Walter Simpson

Buffalo, NY – In case you thought the U.S. Senate was soft on terrorism, senators of both parties stampeded in support of the Homeland Security Act last month. One of the few dissenters was brave soul Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, who said the bill was nothing more than a bureaucratic behemoth cooked up by political operatives to cover the President's backside, dump thousands of federal workers, and send hefty service contracts and billions of dollars in research grants to favored private companies and corporate contributors.

Additionally, Byrd warned, the Homeland Security bill would "foster easy spying and information gathering on ordinary citizens which may be used in ways which could have nothing whatsoever to do with homeland security."

I encountered the Homeland Security Act a few days later. When I opened a bank account for my twelve year old daughter, it took an extra fifteen minutes because this law now requires my bank to establish a special profile on me which can be easily accessed by the police or FBI.

As I sat there answering the bank officer's questions, the Homeland Security Act was not making me feel more secure. In fact, quite the reverse. I kept asking myself, What is this country coming to? I was reminded of my dislike of the term homeland security, how totalitarian it sounded to me from the start.

Since September 11, 2001, there has been a steady erosion of privacy in this country. Washington, D.C. has become the Candid Camera Capital, with spy cameras going up everywhere. The USA Patriot Act has given government agencies easier access to student records with no need to show probable cause. Same for phone taps, internet and e-mail spying. Librarians and booksellers -- professionals who have dedicated their lives to freedom of thought -- must now provide police with information about the books we borrow or buy. City police departments are asking for more latitude to spy -- to photograph, tape and infiltrate - despite the abuses of the past which limited this activity.

We've all heard about football stadiums experimenting with surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology. Meanwhile, airports are preparing to use iris scanning devices to determine whether you are a friendly flyer.

And don't forget the identification computer chip which is now available for surgical implant under your skin, you know, so you don't get lost. How long before its required ID?

This might sound a little paranoid except for the latest surveillance weapon in the war against terrorism. I am referring to the Bush Administration's Total Information Awareness program to develop a giant database to collect financial, educational, travel, medical, veterinary, immigration, housing, e-mail, telephone information on every American citizen along with the electronic signatures of our face, eyes, fingerprints and even gaits, the unique movements our bodies make when we walk.

Do we really want all that stuff in Pentagon computers? Is that what it takes to fight terrorism? Or are we planting the seeds of our own destruction?

I believe that privacy, dignity and freedom are inseparable. When our lives are monitored -- when the police, FBI, CIA or the Pentagon are looking over our shoulders as we go about out daily lives-- there is a chilling, intimidating, controlling effect, and our lives are no longer our own. All of this was captured by George Orwell in his book 1984. Being watched by Big Brother meant being enslaved by Big Brother. No wonder the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the right to privacy.

While I agree we must find and stop terrorists, there are better ways to wage this war against terrorism. There are many things we could and should be doing which would make it harder for terrorists to hate us.

Suppose, for example, we rejected materialism and started sharing our wealth with the world's poor and disenfranchised. Suppose we got serious about promoting democracy and stopped supporting depots. Suppose we walked the walk on human rights and closed down the U.S. torture training school known as the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. Suppose we conserved energy and quit our destructive addiction to foreign oil. Suppose we told the world that we would not unilaterally wage war whenever and wherever we felt like it. Suppose we joined the world community and signed international agreements like Kyoto, the ban on land mines, and the treaty to establish an international criminal court. Suppose we abandoned globalization and instead pursued justice. Wouldn't that take the wind out of the terrorists' sails?

Listener-Commentator Walter Simpson is energy office at the University at Buffalo.