Every time I drive between Baltimore and Washington and come upon those big, spooky National Security Agency buildings in Fort Meade, I have cinematic thoughts about what goes on inside. I imagine the best and brightest of surveillance nerds spying on nuclear activity in Iran, on terrorist training camps in Yemen, on Kim Jong-un's playroom in North Korea.
I also assume they're watching me as I drive along Route 32, taking my picture and running it through face-recognition software, recording the license plate on my car. If there's a cellphone in use, they're probably listening to the conversation, too.
But wait. President Barack Obama says that's not so.
"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," he said Friday, defending a previously secret program of massive data collection by the NSA and the FBI as a way to protect us from terrorist threats. The program has been in place for years. Don't worry, the president said, there are safeguards to protect the privacy of American citizens.
The people who work in those big, spooky buildings at the NSA might have access to millions of phone calls, but they can't actually listen to a conversation without the permission of a federal judge. They can't read emails or other Internet data of Americans or anyone living here. The whole program, the president assured us, has regular judicial and Congressional oversight — and that should be enough.
"If people can't trust not only the executive branch," Mr. Obama said, "but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here."
Going to have?
Trust — in government, in corporations and in other institutions — has taken a beating for years. The war in Iraq was based on a lie. The economic meltdown and recession that commenced in 2007-2008 stemmed from irresponsible financial practices, the collapse of a house of cards. For decades, Catholic leaders covered up sexual abuse by priests here and abroad. Lance Armstrong turned out to be a liar.
Public approval of Congress is abysmally low, with partisan politics, big money and corporate influence too often trumping the general welfare. Public trust in the Supreme Court took serious hits with the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 and the Citizens United ruling a decade later.
Obama promised to close the shameful detention center at Guantanamo Bay and free dozens of detainees cleared for release, but he's yet to do so. He's made bold statements on climate change, but his actions have not matched his rhetoric. After the massacre at Newtown, Conn., he failed to turn a nation's anguish into meaningful gun regulation while the Senate bowed to the demands of the gun lobby.
There's always a lot to be cynical about, but I think the condition is more acute now than I've ever seen it.
If you're old enough to remember the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, you know that public trust in institutions and leaders has been shaken, even shattered. And yet we somehow survived.
But what once seemed episodic today seems epochal — a protracted period of mistrust that has fostered a cynical view of not only government but also an economic system that fosters breathtaking disparities.
Much closer to home, trust slips away in little pieces — when an alleged leader of a criminal gang takes control of a jail by corrupting (and even impregnating) his jailers; when, instead of just resigning on principle, a grandstanding county sheriff vows to eschew a new gun law he considers unconstitutional; when a municipality levies a fee on citizens for one purpose (stormwater remediation) but tries to use some of the revenue for another (property tax relief); when an elected official conducts a marriage ceremony for a couple of lobbyists, reminding us of the insularity of the political class.
So we get this pileup of low-grade and high-end scandal, conflict and mischief. The cumulative effect goes well beyond building healthy skepticism to establishing chronic mistrust. The tea party emerged from this caldron. Its members opposed the 2008 taxpayer-backed bailouts of banks considered too big to fail, and since then the party has pushed Congress for smaller government and fiscal austerity. When it was revealed that some tea party groups were targeted for special scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service, their claims of the evils of big-brother government gained traction.
Now we have this new revelation — that for years there has been a secret program in place that allows the NSA and FBI to collect records of our telephone calls and our Internet traffic, in the name of national security.
Trust in government might be in tatters, but on this count — the war on terrorism that Obama says he wants to curtail and yet still pursues — we suspend our mistrust. I don't see many of my fellow Americans suddenly objecting to their phone calls being in a database in one of those big, spooky buildings at the NSA. The Boston Marathon bombing was less than two months ago.