For the last decade liberals have proclaimed ourselves to be the “reality-based community.” The idea, starting with the Iraq War, was that conservatives were seeing monsters under the bed, that they were ignoring real threats, and that this attitude was leading us to disaster.
It did. Iraq was a disaster. Katrina was a disaster. The Great Shitpile, meant to cover it all up, caused the Great Recession, another disaster. For Republicans, the ultimate disaster was President Obama, and their denialism has continued from the day of his election to today.
But if Democrats are to be useful, if we're to become a true governing majority, we can't take our eyes off the ball of reality. With the so-called NSA Scandal, we have.
For some reason we decided that, once Barack Obama became President, this law professor and Constitutional scholar would ignore a law passed by Congress, would somehow disavow the Patriot Act and, at the same time, magically keep us as safe as the Bush people thought we should be.
What we know now is that he didn't ignore that law. As with all other laws, President Obama has faithfully executed his responsibility as the law gave it to him.
The cloud computing resources foreseen by the law's authors have been accessed. The telephone records and Internet cache records that were seen as accessible under the law have been obtained.
What followed is the same use of cloud computing that we see in dozens of other “big data” applications all the time, the same thing that lets Amazon recommend songs to us, that lets Google instantly deliver cogent results to us, that gets us directions when we talk to Apple's Siri. Clouds combine virtualization, parallel processing, and server rooms containing hundreds of thousands of commodity PCs to deliver “big data” applications that analyze vast amounts of unstructured data on command, and deliver those results in a scaled way to whoever asks for them.
If you don't think the NSA should be doing what it's doing, then you're saying you can Google and they shouldn't.
The result, according to the Administration, is that “dozens” of serious attacks have been thwarted. The only scheme that got past the screen was the Boston Marathon bombing, in which two 20-somethings, acting on their own, built home-made bombs out of pressure cookers and readily obtained instructions, then personally set those bombs along a crowded street.
On balance, a pretty good record. It seems that, using these new powers granted by the Congress, there are only two kinds of conspiracies that have any hope of success. One is something planned by another government, and kept secret by the policy of that government. The other is the kind of rogue, random attack we had here.
In terms of public safety, the record isn't so good, but that's because the laws are fucked. We're losing 10,000 people/year to gun violence in this country. This is close to the toll taken on our military at the height of the Vietnam War, between 1967-1970. Typically these are law-abiding citizens, sometimes little kids, who are getting at guns when they shouldn't, or getting their hands on them when they're angry.
We're rightly angry over the reality of handgun violence. The law has failed there. But the law hasn't failed when it comes to the NSA. It has merely been used.
Now, if liberals have a problem with the Patriot Act then, as the President says, let's have that argument. Let's have a commission, as The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg and others have suggested, that will see how the law is working, and recommend changes. If you don't like a law, change the law.
But when liberals attack the President for obeying the law, and for using a law that Congress passed, then we're joining the Teahadists. When we run around screaming that “the NSA is listening to all our phone calls” or “the NSA is watching what we do on the Internet,” things that aren't true, when we put these things out into the culture in order to increase the paranoia people already have about government, its leaders, and its powers, we're playing the Tea Party's Game.
We can't afford to do that. We already have one Silly Party. It's up to Democrats to be the Sensible Party. If the law is wrong, change it. But if technology exists, don't deny it. Don't feed the paranoia machine – that's the other side's job. You keep your head. You stay grounded in reality.
The fate of the nation is at stake.