Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Security and Lies

People are distrustful of [people in government] because they are LIARS.
It was a simple enough statement. With a simple enough answer:
So, more than likely, are you.
Part of the problem is that we tend not to prioritize the truth very highly - it's a means, not an end. When we feel that someone really needs to do something, it's really important to protect them from harm or we're convinced that they just can't handle the truth, we tend to lie instead, and hope to be forgiven later if we're found out. My father taught me to distrust activists, on the grounds that they were likely to highly prioritize getting me to support "the cause," and if that meant not telling the truth... He didn't distrust their motives, simply their facts. He even condoned deceit at times. If a lie was what it took to stir someone to action against an intolerable condition, then that's what it took.

I know that I would be on the horns of a dilemma if I had to choose between being honest with someone or getting them to believe a falsehood that I thought would save lives. And I think that this is what's going on with government. As slimy as we want to see government operatives, I'll bet a lot of them sincerely believe in the rightness and necessity of what they're doing. If another lie would have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing, would YOU want to be the person on the hotseat, explaining why you placed a personal principle over life and limb? I don't know that I would want to be that guy. And, while we're at it, do you think that you'd be praising them for their commitment to the truth. It's easy to teach that honesty is the best policy. But we rarely teach that it's worth any real inconvenience - let alone death or dismemberment.

And that's what makes all of this so dicey. Yes, they're liars. Likely, most of the people you trust are. We want to believe that we're so special that only people with malevolence in their hearts would find a reason to lie to us. Once upon a time, I thought that, too. Then, the real world came knocking. (I think I was twelve at the time.) It's easy to say that security should never require falsehood - that there's always a way to be honest - but nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it themselves and isn't accountable for the outcome.

And that, of course, is the real danger. The stereotype of the openly wicked, mustache-twiddling dictator who disappears people for sport and tortures people because it's better than sex is a fallacy. They may have open contempt for people's intelligence, competency or maturity, but many of people that we regard as the worst in the world sincerely, if inaccurately, believed that they had their citizens' best interests at heart. Just like your mother, parish priest or teacher did when they lied about what you happen if you misbehaved, or adopted the wrong values.

The problem isn't when governments decide that we don't know what's best for us. Your parents and other people in authority over you all thought the same thing, at some point in your life. The problem is when governments stop making a distinction between what's best for them, and what's best for us - that their interests are what's best for everyone around them. The point behind insisting on transparency and openness is not to keep them on the right side of the line - it's because we don't know exactly where that line is, until after it's been crossed.

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