Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
The response to the revelation that the US government is conducting very large-scale intrusions into private communications puts the country's public life in a miserable light.
First, there is an enormous amount of hypocrisy regarding the attention now being given to the matter by both the US Congress and the media.
Members of Congress, especially those on certain committees, were certainly aware that the large budgets, complex equipment, and highly skilled officials of agencies like the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) were not being used simply to track Iranian bank accounts in Switzerland.
The figure in circulation now is that well over 1 million governmental employees and those of private contractors had access to "secret" data. Everything that has been done, legal or not, has been known to literally over 1 million persons.
Have none of these people talked to members of Congress, or journalists, or scholars before? Has everyone been blind or mute until a minor employee named Edward Snowden chose to break the silence?
It is impossible to believe this absurd story of universal reticence. Plenty of people knew, but few chose to speak so as to keep their careers intact.
The US claims to be, at times, the land of individual freedom. In fact, many of our citizens are anxious conformists - unwilling to take the risks of defying authority.
The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution is unequivocal: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
I am not aware of the government obtaining an order from a court legalizing its collection of every phone call and most Internet messages made in the US on any given day.
Counting on the complicity of the courts and unrestrainedly exploiting the Patriot Act and other measures that followed the attacks of 9/11, the government uses preemption to legitimize intrusion. It has to prove nothing, only to claim that harm could occur.
The tradition of US justice follows that of common law in England, which moves case by case, fact by fact, to conclusions limited to the matter at issue.
The powers attributed to itself by the government with respect to electronic surveillance amount to a counter-revolution by the state against any and all restraints imposed upon it.
When questioned, the US government has resorted to shallow evasions or outright lies.
President Barack Obama, despite his criticisms of measures like these as a Senator, has trivialized the matter by referring to slight sacrifices of privacy for the common good.
The head of all the intelligence services, James Clapper, has enriched our political vocabulary by describing his own falsehoods as "the least untruth."
Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, has declared that its wiretapping and sheer theft of communications worldwide has averted "dozens" of "terrorist events."
He did not use the term "attacks" but referred to "events," which could mean anything.
A suspected person fixing an appointment for coffee could be considered a "terrorist event."
Many US citizens and legislators regard all of this as an attack on the foundations of our state. Others have doubts: They confront a bipartisan war party consisting of both Democrats and Republicans who are prepared to deflect opposition and justify policies by pointing out the complexities of our new historical situation an ironclad intransigence.
The transformation of our international position, from "leader of the free world" to the leading target of hostility - by groups most of which do not form nations or states but are cultural, religious and regional - is too much for their limited intellectual resources.
They think in outmoded terms, or as if a widespread police action on the model of domestic policing is acceptable.
The president's attempt at pedagogy in his speech calling for an end to "the war on terror" has gone over their heads. His affirmation of the activities of a superstate in fact contradicts his own appeals for a new political rationality.
In light of these confusions at the top, ordinary citizens are disoriented.
The few polls conducted since the disclosures of the full extent of the spying program suggest that the majority of US citizens are inclined to accept the necessity of governmental intrusiveness, thinking of it as an effective means to combat threats to the nation.
The polls show little passion for the theory and practice of freedom in its traditional US form.
The most worrisome aspect of the crisis, then, is that such passion is gone.
The author is professor emeritus of Georgetown University Law Center. firstname.lastname@example.org