Privacy Is the Armor That Protects Your Dignity

Recently, the New York Times revealed that for years American customs officials have been intimidating people at the border, coercing them into agreeing to searches of their laptops and phones. This situation has left many of these people feeling “belittled, ashamed, humiliated, and disgraced.” These violations happened under the leadership of Barack Obama. One can assume that this type of behavior will be even further encouraged under the current administration.

Reading this article got me thinking a lot more about getting serious about my online privacy, such as transitioning to an encrypted email service like ProtonMail. What can encrypted email do to help you in a border search situation? Not much, but the fact that you have it might serve to remind you not consent to the search which, under American law, you do not have to do.

[Sure, this will probably cause you to be detained, but it might keep your phone from being searched. And, if everybody who crossed the border refused consent perhaps overzealous border agents wouldn’t have the time to make ridiculous requests. Or at least maybe they’d limit their searches to people who truly are suspicious.]

So why think of email at all when reading about consent searches at the border? Because of this important detail: the only reason that we know about these searches is because the people that they happened to know about them. They were there. They actually watched the government violate their privacy. What about all the times that the government has searched our personal information without us knowing about it?

Not long ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. I have been processing this information with him through Facebook messenger. It’s been a heartrending discussion and I have allowed myself to be vulnerable with him in ways that I would never be comfortable sharing with anyone else.

And so, when I read in the article how one phone was scrutinized by eight different people, I cringed. How many people have read my personal conversation with my friend? I can’t really say. But I can say that since I didn’t send it through an encrypted service like ProtonMail, it’s possible that someone else has, and that thought troubles me. It makes me feel like the people who were subjected to these border searches, who used words like “hurt,” “degrading,” and “demeaning” to describe the experience. “I am distraught and an emotional wreck,” one person said.

And that’s why we all need to care more about our privacy. Because privacy is the armor that protects our dignity. When it’s stripped away and our intimate things become exposed to strangers we really are hurt. It’s an emotional hurt, but it’s a hurt just the same. It is “traumatizing.”

It would be nice if the United States government cared about that, but it doesn’t.

So you have to.

Bravery Has Many Faces

In 1884, Auguste Rodin was commissioned by the city of Calais to create a sculpture commemorating the salvation of the city by six prominent citizens who offered themselves up for sacrifice to King Edward III during the Hundred Years War. The story goes that Edward laid siege to the city for over a year before the starving populous was forced to request terms of surrender. Edward demanded that six of the city’s leaders emerge from it barefooted, with nooses around their necks and holding the key to its castle. And so they did, fully expecting to be beheaded. (As it turned out, their lives were spared when Queen Philippa, Edward’s wife, intervened on their behalf.)

Five hundred years later, Calais was expecting something grand to celebrate this event. Instead, when the veil dropped on Rodin’s creation, it revealed a sculpture that portrayed the Burghers of Calais as real people. Worried. Scared. Old and tired men who did not really want to be put to death as martyrs for their city. And yet, they stepped forward.

A Burgher of Calais (Jean d’Aire) by August Rodin.

It seems to me that society doesn’t appreciate this kind of bravery any more today than it did when it criticized Rodin’s depiction of it. The only definition of bravery that people are willing to recognize in the face of a challenge is someone who glories in the risk and bellows full-throated opposition to it. But I think Rodin understood that a hero is not someone who simply resists all the time, or who is somehow genetically immune to the anxieties of peril. Rather, it’s that perilous moments happen to ordinary people, and it’s how people meet these moments that determines whether or not they are heroes. Sometimes the brave thing is not resistance, but acknowledgment. The Marines did not hold at Chosin. They withdrew. Even Sitting Bull and Geronimo understood that there comes a time to lay down your rifle.

Of course, we all like triumph. If we could write the stories of the challenges of our lives, that’s how they would end. But we can not. There is perhaps, a little motor that ignites in our cells against our will, or the fragile engine of a dream that sputters to stillness despite all of our careful attentions. And when these things happen, acceptance of the inevitable is neither cowardice nor weakness. It is instead to look straight on at something that we don’t want yet can’t change, and to meet it with grace.

Drop Cap by Jessica Hische.

A Calm and Reasonableness Like the World Has Never Seen

December 2, 1942, is not a date that has lived in infamy, and yet it is one of the most important dates in human history. That is the date upon which mankind probably sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

On that Wednesday afternoon, under the racquetball courts at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and his group of scientists popped open a bottle of chianti. Moments before, “Chicago Pile-1,” the world’s first nuclear reactor, had gone “critical” and become self-sustaining. Mankind had unlocked the power of the atom.

The output of CP-1 was minimal – barely enough to energize the filament of a light bulb. And yet, so diligent were those who sought to amplify that power that less than three years later an atomic bomb was dropped on Japan that detonated with the same amount of force as 15,000 tons of TNT, killing 80,000 people. Many thousands more subsequently died from burns and radiation poisoning. Three days later (today is the 72nd anniversary, in fact), a second bomb was dropped.

Instead of looking at the wasteland that these bombs created and viewing them as something that should never have been done, people went in the opposite direction, building thousands more of these bombs, some of which are hundreds of times more powerful than the ones that were dropped on Japan. And here we are today, all of us living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is a heavy burden. Oppenheimer and Stimson thought little of tomorrow’s children when they sought to become death. I cannot be the only father in America who darkly wonders as he drives his daughters to school whether this is the day when they might be vaporized.

Now, we have a situation. Despite numerous attempts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear aspirations, it seems that the North Koreans may have finally developed a bomb that is capable of reaching the United States. The president has threatened nuclear war. The very concept is madness, and yet we inch closer to it. Already, I sense the leadership in Washington priming the public to accept the argument that they had no other choice.

I reject that. Here is another choice: talk to them.

Begin those talks by acknowledging the reason that diplomacy has failed. Admit that a policy of “we reserve the right to destroy you at any time while also rejecting your claim to defend yourself by similar means,” is merely hypocrisy masquerading as diplomacy. “Trust us not to destroy you,” is not something that any hostile sovereign power can reasonably be expected to accept.

How about taking the hypocrisy out of things and simply saying, “we don’t think you should have nuclear weapons and, guess what, neither should we? No one should. So here’s the deal: abandon your nuclear program and we will abandon ours. Truly. Not only will we cease construction of any further weapons, but we will also begin the immediate dismantling of all of our current weapons. It’s going to take us some time, because we have so very many of them, but in ten years the people of North Korea will no longer have to live in fear of nuclear attack from the United States.”

This is radical, I know. “We can’t do that,” you’re thinking. “The Chinese and the Russians will never follow our lead. We’ll be vulnerable.”

It’s okay, just breathe. First, I actually think that if we began a complete and unilateral draw-down of our arsenal, the Chinese and Russians might follow our lead because they could no longer justify the risk and expense of maintaining their own arsenals. But even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter because of the simple truth that for some things there is no sufficient justification. The mass incineration of children is one of those things.

I want you to engage in a little thought experiment with me. It’s going to be a touch uncomfortable, but I think it’s necessary in these times.

Imagine that you’re in a room by yourself and you’ve just received word that the enemy has launched their nuclear weapons. Our defenses have failed. In ten minutes all of America will be lost.

But, on a control panel in front of you, there is a large red button. Pressing the button will launch our devastating and unstoppable retaliatory attack. There is nothing left on earth for you to do now except to push it, or not push it.

Do you push it?

In your mind, push it, and ask yourself what you have done, really. Have you saved your country? Have you done something that the withered remnants of humanity will thank you for? Have you done what Jesus would have done?

The development of the atom bomb was folly; mankind is too impulsive, unpredictable, and accident-prone to control such power — that we haven’t killed ourselves with it yet is nothing less than a miracle. But now we have an opportunity. We can use this opportunity to further prove our unworthiness to possess deep knowledge, or we can use it to save face while walking back an advance that should never have been made.

The people of my generation had no choice but to be born under a nuclear threat. What better gift to give to the next generation than to sweep that threat aside?

Ought we not to at least try?

Equality Is A Necessary Expense

Statement of the Shadow President:

Recently, there has been talk of the “tremendous medical costs” associated with accommodating transgender persons in our military. I am not concerned.

Perhaps there really are tremendous costs attached to supporting a military that reflects the diversity that makes up America. (I doubt it, but maybe.) Even so, preserving that diversity by allowing people who come from minority communities to participate in our national institutions is what a country like ours must pay for. More than that, it’s what a country like ours exists for.

After all, the only reason that we have a military is to preserve our values and our way of life. There is no value that we have fought harder to enshrine in our national identity than that of equality. In my vision of our American family, all are included. All belong. It would be a mockery of the military to prevent it from exemplifying one of the principles that it is meant to protect.

So, yes, our military is expensive and maybe we are paying too much for it. That’s a conversation that we ought to have. But allowing transgender Americans to fully participate in their society, whether it be through military service or otherwise, is not an unnecessary expense. It is, in fact, what we must do if we are to survive and be the nation that we think we are.

Disclaimer: I am not actually the president of the United States. The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of the person who is.

Our Enduring Fraternity

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown by John Trumbull

President Trump recently visited France and complimented the French First Lady on her looks. Instead, he might have said:

President Macron,

Thank you so much for your invitation. It is, of course, a great honor for me to be here in the capital of America’s oldest ally.

You know, it occurred to me as I was flying over here that the friendship that exists between the United States and France really is remarkable. We have never stood across the battle lines from one another. Instead, we have always stood together, shoulder to shoulder. When we needed you eleven score and sixteen years ago, you were there. Almost a century and a half later, when the occasion arose for us to repay the debt that we owed the nation of Lafayette, we did so. And we united again less than thirty years after that to restore France to its rightful place of prominence in the world as we and our allies swept the agents of tyranny and fascism from the European continent, we hope, for ever.

It must be said, though, that even though we’ve never raised arms against one another, we haven’t always gotten perfectly along. We have from time to time quarreled, which is the mark, I believe, of a true friendship. After all, friends only try to persuade those they truly care about.

When we invaded Iraq, for example, France didn’t like it, and told us so. We, in return, acted childishly. Instead of appreciating the criticism for what it was: the concern of a loyal ally who has supported us throughout our history, we scoffed at France and sat insulted in a lonely corner eating our freedom fries. I want to apologize for that.

I feel that I can apologize because I am not someone who believes that the actions of our forebears are immune from criticism simply because they may no longer be here to defend themselves. On the contrary, when one assumes the mantle of public office one also assumes the burden of being judged for one’s official conduct even after one leaves public office, for it is true that the evil that men do lives after them. If we act in ways that will affect posterity, we must also expect posterity to judge us for how we acted.

As such, I do believe that I have the authority to apologize for the juvenile and uncharitable way that the people of the United States behaved toward the people of France not so long ago and, in this instance, I further believe that it is my duty to do so. I am grateful to the people of France for being more magnanimous and mature than the people of my country can sometimes be, as is evidenced by the grace that you have shown my fellow Americans by inviting me to be their representative at these events here today. Thank you.

That being said, I want to put our disagreements behind us and focus on the remarkable things that our two great nations have done for one other these last two hundred and fifty-odd years. You saved our revolution, which then went on to inspire yours. It was a Frenchman who was among the first to come to America and observe our democracy, and who then wrote a luminous book explaining it to us better than we understood it ourselves. When tired immigrants came to our shores hopeful that the blessings of liberty and equality for which every human being yearns would finally be allowed to them, it was a gift from the French that welcomed them and that consecrated the promise of my nation that the United States would indeed be a land in which they could grow the gardens of their dreams.

But that statue continues to consecrate something else as well. It consecrates the spirit of fraternity that has always existed between the French and the American people. It is physical proof of what every American has always known: that if we can count on anything, we can count on France. It is my sincere hope that the people of France know and believe the same of us. It has always been so. May it always be so.

Vive la alliance et vive la France!

Luna

Luna is twenty-eight and under federal indictment for the second time. The first time had been on account of her boyfriend, who asked her to help him sell some drugs. She made a few phone calls, never suspecting that the buyer on the other end was an informant working off his own case for the FBI. She did time in Carswell before she was “returned” to Mexico.

She is a Mexican legally, but not really. Her parents had brought her to Texas when she was young, and she’d grown up here, graduated from High School here, had kids here. But she isn’t a citizen and she’d been caught dealing drugs and that’s that.

In Mexico, she tried to make a go of it by living with family that she’d never met before. At least she spoke the language. She called her kids, who remained in Texas, daily. Every so often, they Skyped. After a while, though, she decided that she wanted to hold them again so she violated the terms of her release and tried to come back. She was caught at the checkpoint. Now, she’s in the Winkler County Jail.

“Luna, my darling!” Liz says as she walks in, “what have you done? I’m so sorry for you!”

Luna explains that there were no drugs this time, just an attempt to come back to see her girls. “But the guidelines, darling! You know the guidelines. Don’t you remember the federal sentencing guidelines?”

Liz lays a chart on the table.

“Your base offense level is here,” she says, pointing with a pen. “But you were deported for a drug crime, which means you’re catching all these extra levels. Plus, that prior case gives you criminal history points. Plus, you were on supervised release when you tried to come back: more points! It’s bad!”

“How bad?”

Liz puts down the pen. “Even if at the bottom of the range, you’re looking at about five years.”

Silence.

“I mean, you can try it if you want to, but you’re not gonna win it. You were caught at the checkpoint. You have a prior drug conviction. You can’t dispute any of that.”

“But five years …”

“The system punishes people for going to trial. The judge can make it worse than five if you lose. And he will. Trust me.”

“But what about my kids? I need to raise them.”

“How old are they?”

“Seven and nine.”

Liz folds her hands and places them on the table. “I’m sorry, honey, but you’re going to have to find somebody else to raise your kids.”


Cross-Posted from Human Rights in America.

Entering the Calculation

Slate has run an interview with law professor John Pfaff, who suggests that, contrary to popular belief, America’s mass incarceration problem is not a result of the war on drugs or longer prison sentences. Instead, he posits that it’s the result of prosecutors charging more felonies than they used to. [According to Pfaff, between the years 1994 to 2008, the probability that a district attorney would file a felony charge increased from 1 in 3, to 2 in 3.] Pfaff doesn’t know the reason for the increase, nor does he know how to combat it. This brings up some interesting questions.

First, why are prosecutors charging more cases these days? Well, why not? With a national plea rate in excess of 90%, it’s painless. It makes good political sense to indict 2 in 3 cases if you know that they’re both likely to plead. That way you can be “tough on crime” and lazy at the same time.

Second, how do we discourage prosecutors from bringing too many charges?  It seems to me that taking more cases to trial would help. If prosecutors expect the cases that they indict to be tried instead of pled, they’re much less likely to pursue weak cases or cases with unserious charges. This will have the laudatory effect of both minimizing the risk of innocent people going to prison, as well as making sure that our prisons only hold people who really need to be there.

Of course, legislatures can help with this by jettisoning the draconian drug sentences that exist in this country, and replacing them with sentences that are reasonable. After all, it’s longer sentences that compel defendants, even in cases where the evidence against them is weak, to plead guilty. If, however, the sentences were such that going to trial were more frequently worth the risk, more trials would happen, forcing prosecutors to prioritize. That would get the charging rate back down to 1 in 3 pretty quickly, I bet. And maybe it won’t even be that much longer before the United States no longer has the largest prison population in the world.

Related:

The Prison Problem (David Brooks, 29 Sept. 2015)