One American’s flow chart

I am not an activist. I am not a revolutionary. I’m a dad of two American boys.


Imagine this: somebody thinks you did something wrong. Let’s say it’s your old boss at Flaco’s Tacos. His name is Carl, and he didn’t like the looks of you ten years ago. He suspected you were more into French cuisine, so he suggested to the local authorities that it might be good if they toss your apartment and look for some smuggled truffles.

On Carl’s good word, the authorities obtain a piece of paper that allows them to search your place immediately, next week, and as many times they want as long as the current leader is in power. This means that any time for—let’s call it the next eight years—the authorities can show up unannounced at your door and search your apartment, car, barn, henhouse, or digital hard drive.

Sounds pretty damned un-American, right?

The founders of our nation thought so, too, because before the American Revolution the authorities could obtain just such a piece of paper. It was called a writ of assistance, and the injustice surrounding it was one of the bases for the Revolution. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution exists because of it.

Put another way: the people who founded our country believed the government should have to show probable cause in front of a judge before it could search your private property. That specific right is part of what makes Americans and their country what they are.

Or, maybe it what made us what we were.


Many years ago, Greenville, SC installed security cameras up and down its busiest business district street. I was uncomfortable with the notion, and I said so.

“If you’re not doing anything wrong, why would you be worried?” a good friend of mine asked.

I didn’t have a particularly good answer for that at the time. The argument went something like this: security cameras are meant to catch criminals, and I’m not a criminal, so security cameras shouldn’t have any negative impact on my life.

And you know what? They haven’t. In fact, they have been used to solve some crimes in the last few years. Chastened, I went back in my hole, accepted the security cameras as a reality, and naively assumed I wouldn’t have to think much more about undue government intrusion into my personal life, because to think otherwise would just be falling victim to a paranoid slippery slope argument, right?

Alas, wrong.

So, now I find myself thinking about it all the time. The ongoing revelations about the National Security Agency’s snooping on Americans have started a national debate about what privacy means, what power our government should have to spy on Americans, and what liberties we give up in the name of security.

As I struggled with my own knee-jerk reactions, a friend posed a question that asked, in essence, “What if this kind of spying stopped the bombing of a preschool?”

As I noted in my interview with Nolan Dalla, I don’t handle the death of children well at all. The question pushed a big button on my chest. So, I asked myself this: “If I could stop the deaths of many children by giving up what I consider to be an essential American liberty, would I do that?”

The first reaction is, “Well, of course! Anything to save the children.”

It’s a political trope I know well. I can’t count the number of times I heard a southern politician stand at the dais and say, “This is for the chirren!”

But, the more I think about it, the question seems a bit unfair. First, there has been no clear evidence shown that this kind of spying has stopped anything of the sort—and certainly not the bombing of a preschool. It’s just as fair to ask, “What if government spying could stop an escaped tiger from eating your family at IHOP?”

Second, we can only presume the government spying in question existed a year ago, and it didn’t stop the Boston Marathon bombing. Perhaps it has stopped some acts of terror. I don’t know. But Boston would have been a great example of how well the spying worked…if it worked. I’m sure eavesdropping can and does work on some level, but it’s a question of how well in relation to the clear end-around of the Fourth Amendment. The effectiveness of the existing tools could very well be far smaller than the intrusion into Americans’ privacy.

How big is that intrusion? We simply don’t know. And that’s the problem. The details of the program might never have been revealed but for the work of a whistleblower and some courageous journalists. But we do know the NSA is sharing extra-legally obtained information with the Drug Enforcement Administration. And we do know that all international emails to and from Americans are getting scooped up. And that is probably not the half of it.

All of that said, I want my country to make every legal effort to protect us from terrorism. So, it leaves me constantly struggling to understand what’s right and what’s wrong.

The easy thing to do is to simply not think about it. Ignore it. Pretend it’s not happening or that, at least it’s not happening to me (until…well, now, probably). I’ve done that for a while for a variety of reasons. I’m not a legal scholar. I’m not a historian. I’m not privy to enough national security information to make a truly informed judgment. Perhaps that should disqualify me from having any say or any opinion on the subject. But if that’s the case for me, it’s the case for a majority of Americans who are just as in the dark.

I have come to my own loose conclusions which are probably irrelevant to the discussion at large, but as I was gnashing my teeth about it, I came across a couple of short essays that framed my thinking. The first is Charles P. Pierce’s “Tell Me What Is Being Done In My Name.” The second is David Foster Wallace’s “Just Asking.” Both are very short, but they help form a foundation for what we as Americans should be able to ask of our government.

And then because I was still having a very hard time coming to grips with the question, I literally did the following: I created a flow chart that posed the same question I faced many years ago. If I’m not doing anything illegal (and I’m not, by the way), why would I worry?

This is what I came up with. It’s embedded below with clickable links and such. It might disappear soon. If it does (and because the embedded version is sort of hard to see and unwieldy) I’ve recopied it here (without the clickable links, but you can Google if you need to).

mind mapping software

I don’t know if my thinking is right. I don’t know if my logic follows. I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong. All of that said, the fear of being wrong shouldn’t stop me from trying to come to some sort of educated opinion and hoping others do the same.

No, I am not an activist. I am not a revolutionary. I am simply the dad of two American boys, and I think it’s my duty, at the very least, to think critically about what this new Orwellian society could mean for them.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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6 Responses

  1. Jay says:

    When confronted with the argument about if you are doing nothing wrong then you have nothing to hide I say “I have nothing to hide from people I trust.” I do not trust government power implemented in secret without checks, balances and transparency.

  2. Tim Lavalli says:

    Exactly, it comes down to trust.

    In your flowchart you hit on the essential point of this debate. Do you trust the government? If you do, then domestic spying is not an issue. If, however, you have issues with the government particularly when the “other” party is in power, then you probably have a problem with the NSA, FBI, CIA and LSMFT. So it comes down to; “Do you trust the government?” For me the answer is simple.

  3. Jason Kirk says:

    Just as you’re not a historian or activist, neither are your friends lawyers when they say they have nothing to hide because they’re doing nothing wrong. There’s a massive difference between doing something morally wrong and doing something illegal. Attorney Harvey Silverglate expounds upon this in his book, Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. Here’s a video with him explaining the concept.

  4. KenP says:

    No problem if you aren’t an offender?

    If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him. — Cardinal Richlieau

    How much have all of us written and now it is all stored in government databases.

    The Holocaust, in the eyes of a legitimate government, was legal.

    There’s no technology that overcomes human nature. Sadly, not only for good but for evil.

    Keep questioning, Otis. We’ll turn you into a libertarian yet.

  5. Clare says:

    If there’s nothing wrong with the government collecting massive amounts of data on Americans’ activities without any hint that any of them are involved in a crime, why did they have to hide it from us?

  6. Astin says:

    Fear-based arguments work because they prey on that basest of emotions.

    What if [insert action of vast overkill and minimal effectiveness with negative consequences here] stopped [terrible thing that has a low probability of occurring].

    What if wearing Axe Body Spray kept aliens from dissecting your pets?

    What if washing your hair with feces stopped a gang of cannibals from attacking your home?

    Well, you’d smell like shit either way, but at least aliens and cannibals wouldn’t be something you’d concern yourself with on a daily basis anymore.

    Surveillance states have never been viewed as anything but totalitarian and without justification by history. This will be no different. People will look back and wonder why it was allowed to even get this far. Not that much will be done about it before the next distraction makes everyone forget about it.

    Look! Russia!