Thursday, March 26, 2009

Safety and Ideals

I'm entering my local Toastmaster's International Speech Competition tomorrow.  I'm hoping to persuade listeners to stick up for their rights and oppose government monitoring of email.  Here's the talk:

Have you ever wondered: what is it that makes the United States of America – the Land of Freedom and Opportunity?

Think about it. In all the world, the United States is unique because the Founders of this country believed that all people have the inherent rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Other governments exist to conquer neighboring territories, or to protect their citizens from nearby wannabe conquerors.  Other governments exist to provide income for a King to live in luxury. Other governments exist to control people and make them follow religious or philosophical dictates.

Our government exists to ensure our rights to LIFE, LIBERTY and PURSUIT of HAPPINESS!


We just elected a new President –  President Barack Obama who said in his inaugural address, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

So why is our government reading our email?

Any time you send an email beyond our borders, a copy is sent to government agents whose job it is to decide if your email is subversive. 

I came to the attention of the federal email readers because I’m helping a French friend translate his brother’s poetry into English.  In one of my favorites, his brother is looking at his reflection in a puddle. A breeze blows a ripple across the water. And his brother wonders what caused the wrinkle on his face. The poem is about how we interpret what we see.

Interpreting what we see is part of Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness. So is the right to choose our audience – to choose the recipients of our communication. If I don’t send a copy of my email to the government, then the government shouldn’t have it.

When I told a friend that our government is WRONG to read our emails, she surprised me by asking, “Why does it matter if you're not doing anything wrong?”

It matters because WRONG is in the eye of the beholder. We all have plenty of experience with being thought wrong when we were perfectly innocent.

I’ll share some examples from my own life.

My boss at the sewage lab didn’t like it when I developed a faster and more accurate method to measure the pH of incoming sewage.  “Your new method will let you finish your tests 15 minutes early. I can’t allow that!” Any argument on my part about the value of increased accuracy only made my boss angrier.  To my boss, I was WRONG. 

When I was thirteen, my mother found me trying on lipstick in the bathroom and screamed, “You’re not going out of this house looking like that!”  I never intended to go out of the house looking like that. I never got a chance to explain. To my mother, I was WRONG.

When I was nine, I disagreed with something my father said at the dinner table. “Go to your room. This instant!”  My father frequently disagreed with dinner guests about a wide range of topics.  But I was a child and by his rules, any opinion I had that didn’t match his own was WRONG.

If our family and co-workers, who know us, can misinterpret our actions so easily, what can we expect from government agents who don’t know us at all, and who are hoping to find people they can suspect, in order to justify their jobs?

This is not the first time government agents have snooped on innocent citizens.
President John Adams snooped on Benjamin Franklin’s grandson’s letters and tried to shut down the press with which he criticized the Adams administration.

During the McCarthy era, innocent people were blacklisted, and unable to find work if they were suspected of Communist sympathies. Ethel Rosenberg was executed for no crime at all.

Nixon had his Enemies List.  Under the Bush administration, 20 American citizens, all Muslims, were jailed without charges and without access to lawyers on suspicion of being enemy combatants. 

The United States Government has a history of abusing citizens via its snooping power.  A history in total opposition to the Founding Fathers intent to secure to all citizens the rights to LIFE, LIBERTY and PURSUIT of HAPPINESS.

But you may ask – what if I’m a traitor? Doesn’t the government have the right to find out? 

If I’m a traitor, surely I have to do something other than write emails in order to accomplish my goals.  The founding fathers were all traitors to England. They published books for public sale. They bought weapons, created an army, and refused to pay taxes.  Our government has plenty of access to monitoring that kind of activity without reading our email.

In 1993, our government was able to find the people who tried to bomb the world trade center without resorting to unconstitutional snooping.

Why does it matter if the government reads my email if I have done nothing wrong? It matters because we have the right to LIFE, LIBERTY and the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS! Only so long as we defend it!

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