My favorite scene in the movie "The Jerk" is when Navin Johnson (played by Steve Martin) is being stalked by a serial killer who has a very specific taste in prey: "random bastards." The deranged killer (played by M. Emmet Walsh) rifles through the phone book and blindly picks his victim. "Johnson, Navin R.," he says. "Sounds like a typical bastard. . Die, Navin R. Johnson. . Random (expletive deleted), typical run-of-the-mill bastard."
It reminds me of the ongoing case of the vapors contracted by much of the media and other critics of President Bush's program of spying on "certain Americans." That's how Dan Abrams of MSNBC, for one, refers to a handful of people who are allegedly on al-Qaida's speed dial and have been in contact with terrorists overseas: "certain Americans."
"Gosh," the average viewer might say, "I'm a certain American!"
If one paid only casual attention to the news these days, one would get the sense that Bush has a big stack of phone books in the Oval Office, and he and Dick Cheney spend their days thumbing through them to find "certain Americans" to wiretap.
"Joe Smith?" says Cheney, rubbing his hands together as if over a fine meal. "Man, he's gotta qualify as a certain American. Let's listen to his conversation with his wife."
At first, I thought this NSA story was a big deal on the merits, and I wrote that Bush should have asked to fix the law rather than work his way around it. I still think that, in a perfect world, the White House would try to get the laws it needs from Congress. Still, after 9/11, Congress declared that "the president has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism" and authorized "all necessary and appropriate force" against al-Qaida. That strikes me as ample justification for tapping phone calls between al-Qaida associates in Cleveland and Cairo.
Now I'm beginning to think this is just the latest in anti-Bush hype. The New York Times, which launched this "scandal," remains at journalistic DEFCON 1, releasing a stream of articles, editorials and op-ed articles as if the nation were up in arms over what some hotter heads believe to be an impeachable offense. (A writer for Newsweek.com raises the possibility that the NSA wiretapping is a prelude to right-wing death squads in the U.S.) James Risen, the reporter who uncovered the spying program and has a book on the "secret history" of Bush's anti-terrorism efforts, sounds like he's already cleared space on his mantle for his Pulitzer, Profiles in Courage and Nobel prizes.
Here's what happened. After 9/11, authorities found a bunch of e-mail addresses and phone numbers in the phones and computers of confirmed terrorists. They tracked down those leads. Most of the people the NSA started eavesdropping on - about 7,000 - lived overseas, and their phone calls were to other foreigners living abroad. But, according to Risen's book, "about 500 people" living in the U.S. who were in contact with suspected terrorists had their communications tapped. Risen calls this "large-scale" spying on the American people even though, as the Weekly Standard recently noted, this constitutes "1.7 ten-thousandths of 1 percent of the U.S. population."
Now, forgive me for not loading up my car with bottled water and canned goods and heading off into the hills to fight with the partisans, but I just don't see what the big deal is. Yes, yes, "slippery slopes" and all that. Gotcha. What else do you have? Because that isn't enough. If you go looking for slippery slopes, you'll always find them. That doesn't mean they're really there. The Patriot Act was called a banana peel on the path to hell, and yet it has turned out to be very difficult to even keep it alive.
What makes this bout of St. Vitus' maniacal dancing seem so opportunistic is that after 9/11, we heard constantly about the need to be more flexible and creative. The 9/11 commission's chief complaint was that authorities suffered from a lack of imagination when it came to terrorism.
Before 9/11, the system for listening to conversations between terrorists abroad and their accomplices on our soil had all the flexibility and creativity of John Ashcroft at a disco contest. Even with warrants issued by the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, the National Security Agency usually had to erase the "American" side of the conversation between suspected terrorists before handing them over to the FBI.
Most Americans think that sort of thing is crazy. But, to keep the frenzy alive, we talk about spying on "certain Americans" - when in reality we're trying to stop barbarians from killing "certain Americans."