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Privacy is not American

Obama’s defence of US surveillance implies that rules of civilisation don’t apply abroad

The latest Prism and Verizon revelations about the United States’ surveillance and data mining programmes are a reminder of the profound crisis facing liberal democracies. There are complex legal and technical issues. But the moral framework that President Obama has set up to justify these programmes will dent the reputation of the US. Obama blithely justified these programmes by saying that “with respect to internet and emails, this does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States”. But the moral hierarchies this insinuates are scandalous. It is a brazen acknowledgment that the rights of non-US citizens or residents count for nothing; American policy can trample on these rights with impunity. For a nation that prided itself on its universalism, this brazen disregard for the rights of others is odd. Presumably, the point of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that no state shall violate these rights, not just that your own state shall not. To claim privacy to be American! So much for universality.

To be sure, members of a state have a special political standing in relation to that state that outsiders do not. But this dualism in respect of rights is unjustifiable. It is now part of a permanent pattern of American foreign policy. It is at the heart of a problematic use of drones. It is at the heart of America’s practice of what Edmund Burke had resonantly called “geographical morality”, where the rules of civilisation do not apply abroad. So torture and rendition can be outsourced to those others, outside the moral pale. This dualism is made even more unjustifiable when allied with another proposition: “foreigners” are deemed guilty until proven innocent. In any action taken against “outsiders”, there needs to be at least some presumptive cause, some justification. Someone has to be designated an enemy. But the open-ended nature of this surveillance dispenses with that pretence: everyone is a potential enemy without rights. War is a permanent condition that can be waged anywhere and everywhere. This may sound melodramatic, but that is exactly the moral relationship this surveillance enshrines with the rest of the world. Perhaps this is an exaggeration. After all, the American government admits that data about Americans was acquired, even if only “incidentally” — one of those curious words in the new Orwellian moral lexicon that reminds one of the easy use of “collateral”.

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