Germans today take to heart and mind philosopher George Santayana's observation that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." After two world wars, the Holocaust and a savage Communist regime, the Germans, like the Ancient Mariner, are obsessed with telling their story to atone for their past. The Stasi exhibition speaks to the atrocities committed by Germans against their own as well as against civilization.
The latest dump of information from Edward Snowden's supply of documents from the National Security Agency, published in The Washington Post, reprises the image of the NSA as the "Stasi on steroids." Such hyperbole doesn't identify the best way to secure collective safety in the age of terrorism, but it's hardly comforting to learn there's still another program collecting hundreds of millions of lists from personal emails and instant messaging services from around the world. This program has collected data from unsuspecting Americans, even though Americans, so we're told, weren't deliberately targeted.
"We are not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans," says Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA. He insists the agency works according to the attorney general's rules to "minimize" information identifying American citizens. The program, he says, aims instead at foreigners who may be terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers. The emphasis, as in other counterterrorism programs, is on finding "the haystack that hides the needle." But the government isn't exactly on everyone's Christmas card list this year. The fact that the program is subject only to oversight by the White House, rather than the stricter rules that govern domestic data collection, hardly reassures anybody.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says the NSA has made Americans more secure, and she wants more transparency. But Congress is not very popular, either. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, says the Snowden revelations have caused irreparable damage. In maintaining that delicate balance between security and civil liberties, the most important task is making sure that the dry straw of that haystack doesn't ignite a fire that will burn us all.