Secrets, Self-Delusions, and the National Security State

Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on the Security State. Read other perspectives here.

The media frenzy over reports of our government listening in on phones and hacking into computers, and the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden's ongoing leaks, is disturbing, to say the least. Each day seems to bring a new revelation on the extent of the NSA's reach. How seriously should we be taking these reports? My answer is that national security is a serious business. And we, as citizens of a democratic government and people of religious faith, must look at these issues with clear and self-critical eyes.

Our government is a big complex system. And because it is a system, we can compare it to other systems. Let us consider the family as one such system. Government systems and family systems run on agreements between the members of the system. In family systems that are dysfunctional, agreements to keep secrets are critical. Dysfunctional family systems depend on each member buying in, in one way or another, to keeping one or more secrets. Mom's an alcoholic, dad is physically or sexually abusive, a son is gay, or maybe a daughter is addicted to prescription drugs. Family members all buy in to keeping the secret so that the money keeps flowing, or so that the social placement is maintained, or because reprisal by one or more of the other members is feared.

It is uncanny how, in such pathological family systems, even the members who don't want to keep the secret—or who in fact do not actually benefit by keeping the secret—can be persuaded to join the conspiracy. In many cases the keeping of secrets spills over into actual denial. Sometimes family secrets are so frightening that every member becomes willing to deny that whatever is being covered up is even happening at all.

Secret-keeping is absolutely essential for dysfunctional family systems. I maintain that secret-keeping is absolutely essential for dysfunctional governmental systems as well.

In 2003, the great majority of Americans were willing to support President George W. Bush's pre-emptive U.S. military strike against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Bush told us that Iraq was shielding the Islamist terrorists responsible for 9/11 and was manufacturing "weapons of mass destruction." The unmentioned secret was this: We were not planning to invade a sovereign nation in the Middle East because it harbored terrorists or because we knew for a fact that it was building up a nuclear arsenal capable of harming Western nations. We were going to invade that country because we wanted to protect our economic interest there, which was Iraq's vast oil reserve. And to a lesser extent, we were going to invade because the first President Bush had suffered embarrassment at the hands of Saddam. As in a dysfunctional family system, the fairly open secrets related to an illegal, unnecessary, and catastrophically costly war were protected by denial.

Like it or not, we have to remember that our government expresses who we are as human beings. When we are willing to flatter ourselves morally, we insist that we are not the kind of people who just go in and take what belongs to someone else. We maintain that we aren't the kind of country that loots other people's stash, that we aren't a nation that sends its young women and men into battles where they will be maimed and traumatized and killed so we can have more of what we want. In a more self-aware mode, we would admit that we were and still are willing to do all these things because we don't want to face potential energy hardships or an economic downturn or the kinds of personal sacrifices that our forebears made. Possibly we would even admit that we don't want the U.S. to be held accountable for its military and economic and religious overreach.

In the case of Iraq, we kept the secrets and carried on with the denial and stayed at home to prosper, get fat, wash our hands, and live like we wanted.

So, in the end, do our faith traditions have anything distinctive to say in relation to government overreach and how do we assess the ethics of those who expose secret government operations in the name of preventing abuse? 

Clearly they do. But the habits of keeping secrets and denying what we Americans really want get in the way of a faithful response to the ever-growing national security state. We have learned all too well to keep the secrets and live in the denials that keep us stuck where we are, more or less paralyzed by our protections and our privileges.

1/28/2014 5:00:00 AM
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