Paul Greenberg

Data-mining is the sophisticated mathematical analysis of large masses of numbers in search of telltale patterns. I won't pretend to know how it works. At the first mention of algorithms, to borrow a phrase from the late great Sam Goldwyn, that master of the malaprop, include me out.

I do know there are historical patterns as well as mathematical ones, and the current foofaraw over the use of Big Data to prevent terrorist attacks on this country fits right into an old and familiar one: In the first rush of fury after a sneak attack on this country, Americans stand united behind our president and commander-in-chief and back his every move.

But as the struggle continues year after year, as sacrifices mount and doubts multiply, national unity begins to fray.

In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, a galvanized nation came together. But as the years wore on, and Gold Stars began to appear in window after window, a different mood began to set in. When the casualty reports started filtering in from Okinawa, the bloodiest landing in the Pacific campaign, public support for the war took a dramatic dip in the opinion polls. How long could this go on?

The same pattern emerged during the Korean Conflict, a war by a different name. Harry Truman, who had just won a stunning victory in the 1948 presidential election, an upset that still inspires every political underdog, would leave the White House in 1953 as one of the most unpopular presidents of his century. His historical rehabilitation, as the deep divisions and suspicions of those times slowly faded, would take years.

Note the rise and fall in political support for George W. Bush. The country rallied behind his leadership in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, this generation's December 7th. His wartime policies, once overwhelmingly supported, were overwhelmingly rejected in the presidential election of 2008, and a junior senator from Illinois who had been one of his chief critics would become his successor as president.

Whatever doubts about those policies Barack Obama had voiced as a senator, once he became president and commander-in-chief, he would adopt almost every one of them -- from drone warfare to data-mining. Power can breed responsibility.

Yes, our president still pays lip service to some of the views he embraced as a senator: He still wants to close Guantanamo, though without offering a better or even clearer alternative to holding unlawful combatants there. And just the other day he was recommending repeal of the Patriot Act, even as he was pursuing the War on Terror (if not by the same name any longer) under that act.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.