No, Big Brother isn't watching

It's easy to imagine an alternate America in which President Barack Obama had ostentatiously dismantled or curtailed the government's electronic surveillance program shortly after his inauguration in 2009.

Today, nearly two months after the Boston Marathon bombings, his critics would still be in a high, trembling state of dudgeon, accusing Obama of weakness, naivete and ineptitude.

Ask the seriously wounded if they'd rather have their limbs back or their phone records stored in an unimaginably vast database! Ask the families of the dead which is more precious to them, their loved ones or the knowledge that their banal Internet browsing histories are unavailable to the bots scouring cyberspace for evidence of terrorism!

Even as it is, with the controversial program in place, opportunistic detractors are taking their shots.

"Trolling through millions of phone records hampers the legitimate protection of our security," wrote Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul in an essay in The Wall Street Journal this week. "The government sifts through mountains of data yet still didn't notice, or did not notice enough, that one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects was traveling to Chechnya. Perhaps instead of treating every American as a potential terror suspect the government should concentrate on more targeted analysis."

Yeah, perhaps.

Or perhaps the freshman senator isn't as well-informed about national security, present threats and the efficacy of various anti-terrorism measures as the president of the United States and his top intelligence advisers.

Perhaps if Paul's reported presidential ambitions are ever satisfied and he's faced with making complex and consequential decisions on how to balance individual privacy with national security, he'll change his attitude, as Obama did in his evolution from lectern-thumping freshman senator to commander in chief.

Either way, I'm not alarmed by what we've learned in the past week about the extent of the government's electronic data mining in which algorithms search for telltale patterns of communication. Not yet. Not by a long shot.

When Paul writes, in his final paragraph, "Big Brother certainly is watching and it's not hyperbolic or extreme to say so," I roll my eyes at yet another shallow allusion to George Orwell's dystopian novel.

When such an allusion becomes reasonable — when, say, critics can identify actual and repeated instances in which Big Brother has used indiscriminately collected personal information to identify and somehow disadvantage law-abiding citizens — then I'll join the chorus of protest.

So far, though, I'm hearing mostly "What if …?" invocations of worst-case scenarios highly reminiscent of the paranoid, slippery-slope warnings of gun rights advocates.

If we try to control the illegal use and trafficking of firearms through registration, jackbooted government thugs will soon come door to door to confiscate our guns!

Skepticism is one thing. Even at its best, government is overseen by human beings, always fallible, sometimes dishonest, corrupt or megalomaniacal. It pays to keep an eye on all that they do in our name, and to be vigilant for rogue activity at all levels.

But paranoia is another. It's socially poisonous to base customs and laws on the idea that those in power are ill-motivated, and to excite fear with appeals to the darkest suspicions of the populace. Any law, any measure, can be abused and rendered frightening and absurd. In the end, we have to trust that our process is sound.

So it's good, on balance, that we now know much more about the process. Despite the rush for the fainting couch by those who think The Man is interested in and capable of monitoring their routine jibber-jabber, I'm glad we're having this debate.

I'm glad there's pressure on our elected leaders to fine tune the dials of privacy and security out in the open so that we can at least review the settings and proceed accordingly.

I'm glad that most of the hard questions today are about how our anti-terrorism efforts have worked over the past 111/2 years, and not how they have failed.

Discuss this column at chicagotribune.com/zorn

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