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I spy, you spy

By Kenneth R. Johnson


Jonathan Freedland wonders, “Why Surveillance Doesn’t Faze Britain”? Comparing his fellow British subjects to Americans, he finds them “curiously complacent” about their civil liberties when it comes to the massive invasions of privacy implied by Edward Snowden’s revelations of the US National Security Agency’s “big data” scoops of information from digital communication sources. Ultimately, Freedland chalks this up to the two countries’ different political histories. The United States has a written constitution and Bill of Rights, the United Kingdom doesn’t. Brits are still subjects of Her Majesty’s Government, whereas Americans are citizens under their own governance, “of the people, by the people, for the people”—as recent celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address have reminded us.

But Freedland must feel his admiration compromised by the latest news from the surveillance front, that “United States Can Spy on Britons Despite Pact, N.S.A. Memo Says”.  Our Bill of Rights protects us (Americans), but apparently not our closest traditional allies, the “Five Eyes” countries—U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand—who have long had (since World War II) a gentlemen’s agreement, as well as official protocols, against spying on each other. Sic transit “special relationship.”

Uncle Sam is Watching You © Richard McGuire. Used with the artist's permission.
Uncle Sam is Watching You © Richard McGuire. Used with the artist’s permission.

Yet all of these agreements, formal or informal, have always had provisos for special circumstances, reserving the right to spy on each other, in the words of Glanz, “when it is in the best interest of each nation.” Security trumps freedom, when push comes to shove. Or, to put it another way, the closer one is to the hidden violence which is the ultimate justification for all this spying, the less one is disposed to worry about the civil rights of their perpetrators. I am a liberal Democrat, but I felt as murderously vengeful as anyone when I learned that a friend was in an Underground train immediately behind one of those blown up by terrorists in London on 7/7. To say nothing of 9/11.

Our shared histories of civil rights—and violations thereof—illustrate this too, making it hard for Americans to bask too comfortably in the light such admiration as Freedland’s. (Not to speak lightly of it: the Guardian columnist is one of the most astute British admirers of the virtues of American republicanism. His 1998 book, Bring Home the Revolution, can be read as profitably by Americans who take their liberties for granted as by Britons who don’t know what they’re missing.)

But looking back over our shared yet divided histories we find depressingly regular episodes when both countries have signally failed to live up to their highest ideals.

The American Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were manifestly unconstitutional, but were forced into law by President John Adams and his fellow Federalists, terrified that something like the French Reign of Terror would make headway in the United States if various kinds of “suspicious” persons—and ideas—were not stopped at the border. Terror begets terror.

Also in the 1790s, the government of William Pitt the Younger, long hailed as “the Pilot who brought us through” England’s wars against republican (not Napoleonic) France, passed many laws that suspended the supposedly hallowed right of habeas corpus from the Magna Carta. These were laws against British subjects, motivated by fear of the same Terror which scared Adams, and which motivates the mutually reinforcing, if mutually regretted, violations of the N.S.A. and the British G.C.H.Q. (Government Communications Headquarters). Foremost among these was the Royal Proclamation of May, 1792, in which George III urged his loyal subjects to report any suspicious words or behavior they observed among their neighbors to the Home Office for vetting. This was “See something? Say something!” with a vengeance. It did not rely on sophisticated spy satellites or complicated internet piracy, but it worked very well: there were more trials for sedition and treason in Great Britain between 1792 and 1798 than ever before or after in its history—over one hundred, the government winning convictions in a healthy two-thirds of them (State Trials, ed. Howells and Cobbett, 1809-1826).

Kenneth R. Johnston is the author of Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm and the Lost Generation of the 1790s. He received his PhD from Yale University and spent his entire academic career at Indiana University, where he was honored for distinguished teaching and scholarly achievement, while also heading its Department of English. He is also author of Wordsworth and ‘The Recluse’ and The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy, and editor of Romantic Revolutions. The Hidden Wordsworth won the 1999 Barricelli Prize for outstanding contribution to Romantic studies, and was named to several Book of the Year lists in both United Kingdom and United States. Read his previous blog posts.

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Image credit: Richard McGuire, ‘Uncle Sam is Watching You’, The New Yorker, June 24, 2013. © Richard McGuire. Used with the artist’s permission.

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