Skip to main content

A Lame Analogy in Defense of NSA Surveillance

Upon signing the Declaration of Independence, which led to the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin is said to have quipped, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” His comment characterizes the context of what President Obama called “the dawn of our Republic” in his January 17 speech about massive National Security Administration (NSA) surveillance on the people of the United States and on the rest of the planet.

“At the dawn of our Republic,” said Mr. Obama, “a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the ‘The Sons of Liberty’ was established in Boston.” He continued: “The group’s members included Paul Revere and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots.”

Yet the story of Paul Revere involves something called the Revolutionary War because those men whom Obama is calling “Patriots” had decided to engage in an armed revolution against the established British government of King George III. According to the British government at that time, Paul Revere and his compatriots were “terrorists.” That’s why Franklin said that if they didn’t hold it together in their bid for independence they would all hang for sedition.

So, is Mr. Obama’s analogy meant to portray the National Security Agency of the United States as comparable to Paul Revere-style “Patriots” working to overthrow the established government of the United States? If not, then what’s the basis of the comparison? Someone didn’t think this one through very well.

Of any given metaphor it is instructional to ask, “In what sense?” “In what sense is the NSA analogous to Paul Revere and his fellow revolutionaries who were spying on the movements of the British troops? Well, quite frankly, there is no similarity, at least none that I can see. The Obama administration has got this one upside-down, inside-out, and backwards.

Paul Revere was not even part of a formal American government. True, he was somewhat politically active, but he was a talented silversmith and goldsmith, a well-connected Mason, a leader of the Boston Tea Party (which involved dressing as Mohawk Indians and throwing British tea in Boston Harbor), and a strong proponent of American independence from the British Empire. In today’s parlance, he would be considered “a rebel,” a term which the British government used for such men.

Perhaps it is a more apt to think of the NSA as analogous to a British colonial spy-network, keeping everyone in the American colonies under constant surveillance in the name of wanting to keep tabs on those advocating independence from Great Britain. This analogy immediately breaks down, however, because the average “patriotic” person in the United States today is more likely to be advocating an upholding the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, rather than a revolutionary overturning of it. And, by the way, the Homeland Security Department has said that one definition of a domestic terrorist is someone who talks a lot about upholding the U.S. Constitution.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

President Obama and his speech writers are apparently having a difficult time coming up with sensible analogies in their effort to “sell” a totalitarian surveillance system to the American people. Analogies are critical to the cognitive (mental) process, and people seem to immediately sense whether an analogy “fits” or not. Truly bad (inapt) analogies can be indicative of a cognitive break.

When President Obama said that Paul Revere was part of “The Sons of Liberty” established in Boston, this brought an American Indian connection to mind. The Americans deemed the British government system to be tyrannical with its imposition of onerous taxes and tariffs. The intellectual movers and shakers among the American people borrowed the example of the liberty of the original nations of North America as the basis for arguing that the Colonies needed to unite themselves in a confederacy as a means of liberating themselves from British tyranny.

At that time, the Delaware Confederacy and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, citing two examples, were widely viewed as iconic images of what it meant to live free from tyranny. The great leader and sage Tamanend and his Delaware people were held in high regard as such a model. Ironically, today’s NSA spying on the globe in the name of increased “security” for the American government is more accurately analogous to the tyrannical side of the Obama administration’s Paul Revere analogy.

Whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden (nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize), Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and Bradley (now ‘Chelsea’) Manning are more accurately likened to those who were opposed to British tyranny at the time of the American Revolution. Such men believe that the U.S. government’s surveillance state is a totalitarian abuse of technological prowess. As Smiley Tavis controversially said on NBC’s Meet the Press, on January 19, 2013, “Edward Snowden might be on a postage stamp somewhere down the road” for exposing U.S. government wrongdoing in what many people see amounts to an overturning of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The era of “the surveillance state” is especially relevant for Indigenous Peoples’ rights advocates, particularly those who engage in direct action to protect the health of Original Nations and the ecological integrity of their territories. Those who actively stand up and oppose corporations wreaking havoc through destructive resource extraction practices are likely to be labeled as “extremists” and potential “terrorists” by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

This point was well illustrated by Nafeez Ahmed in his recent article in The Guardian, "Are You Opposed to Fracking? Then You Might Just Be a Terrorist." In actuality, destructive and harmful mineral exploitation projects that contaminate ecosystems vital for life, such as is happening with the Tar Sands in Canada, are forms of terrorism that seems to go unabated. Poisoning the water and air with lethal substances that threaten to give your love ones cancer ought to be regarded as a terroristic act. It is unconscienable for the government, in league with corporate interests, to put Indigenous Peoples' activists under surveillance for opposing the continuing destruction and desecration of Mother Earth such as the Northern Gateway Pipeline project.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Discovery (2008, Fulcrum).