Should Morality Come at the End of a Government Camera?
In September 2009, Colonel Muamar Kaddafi of Libya wanted to move into the home next to mine. He owned a beautiful estate, ostensibly for the use of the Libyan ambassador and his family. Kaddafi, who was planning to address the United Nations at that time, had plans to pitch a Bedouin-style tent right outside my window, in a New Jersey suburb with a large Jewish population. Millions of dollars were poured into the project of renovation for the home, as befitting a dictator who brazenly robbed his nation of their money to support his extravagance. We organized a public rally on my front porch with Governor John Corzine, Senator Frank Lautenberg, of blessed memory, and Congressman Steve Rothman. We also launched a wide media campaign against Kaddafi, publicly condemning his brutal reign and support of global terrorism. Amid the pressure, Kaddafi eventually canceled his plans to move-in and opted to stay in Manhattan instead.
At the time, many of my friends warned me that criticizing Kaddafi would place me under fierce Libyan surveillance from within the compound next door. Surely, in anticipation of Kaddafi’s arrival, his agents were installing advanced surveillance devices that would enable them to hear and see everything going on in my house. I worried that every time I took a shower, I’d have to wear a lead bathing suit, that I would need to start wearing full body armor to deflect the constant prying x-ray. And, since the Libyan security apparatus could probably read thoughts, I’d have to start sporting a tin yarmulke. At our public rally against Kaddafi’s projected move, my friend Peter Noel joked that I best never scratch my nether regions lest it make news headlines in Libya. So I know what it’s like to be afraid of the watchful eye of my enemies, whether the threat is real or perceived.
But never did I imagine that my own government would be spying on us to the extent that has now been revealed. It seems that Verizon, Google, Apple, and many other companies have been turning over phone and Internet logs and metadata of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency. It’s already surfaced that the NSA and the FBI are mining data and extracting info that enables analysts to track a person’s movements and interactions over time.
We’re all familiar with both sides of the argument by now: if we don’t want another 9/11-style attack, potential terrorists need to be monitored in ways that can’t be detected. On the other hand, the central reason fueling violence and terrorism against America is our freedom. What’s the point of defending what we call “our” way of life if it’s only moving steadily towards “their” way of life in which a kind of “Big Brother” controls all aspects of society?
German psychologist Erich Fromm in “Escape from Freedom” tells us that the notion that everyone wants to be free is an illusion. Look throughout human history and you’ll find that people will reliably submit themselves to lose their freedoms because too much choice can be paralyzing and frightening. Furthermore, freedom is perceived as a gateway to corruption — that morality can only exist through oppression because if people are permitted to act however they want, they’ll never choose to act righteously. That’s the approach of religious extremism in general and modern Islamic fundamentalism in particular. They argue that freedom yields corruption and propose total societal regulation as the solution. The best modern example is Iran, where morality comes at the end of a Revolutionary Guard rifle butt.
A popular line of defense of the NSA surveillance, offered by some politicians and laypeople, is that “if you have nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear.” Alas, the profound moral conundrum: should our safety be guarded by fear at the expense of our free will? Say, for example, a husband or wife is unfaithful to their spouse, but will refrain from immoral behavior if they think someone might catch them, as in theocracies like Iran. Although they can now be trusted to honor their marital fidelity, due to their fear or surveillance, they’re not really more moral, and neither is their relationship more passionate, more romantic, or more devoted. They’re simply afraid of the consequences of their activities. Marriages should be safeguarded by love, not by fear. Commitment should be internalized and not maintained through fear of exposure.
Fear of punishment may have its role in behavioral motivation for children as they mature but, as I wrote extensively in my book, “Face your Fear,” adults must learn to conquer fear. Given the gift of free will, we are meant to harmonize our moral center. This is what Western society is based on, the Jewish idea of divinely ordained freedom of choice.
There’s a reason God is invisible, because He does not wish to be overbearing. He’s meant to be the voice of conscious, but not to constantly threaten us with the possibility of being struck by a bolt of lightning. Fear, a hysterical response to an imagined threat, is a degrading emotion and leads to paranoia. The healthy alternative is caution, a calculated response to a real and present danger. Whereas fear is debilitating, caution gives us the wherewithal to be proactive and vigorous in the face of challenge.
That’s the difference in perspective between terrorist fundamentalists and us. We believe that people have a desire to be good and can be inspired to make moral decisions on their own, whereas they believe that people are inherently corrupt and it can only be corrected through religious coercion.
Western democracies should not be places of fear. We need to find a balance: look for terrorists, employ surveillance where there’s an absolute need. But stop believing that the American population in general needs to be followed and stalked.
If God wanted humans to feel surveilled He would have deployed an army of visible angels. The fact that he didn’t means He wished for each of us to have freedom of choice.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network, which is now launching the American Institute of Jewish values to promote universal Jewish teachings in the American media. He has recently published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.