Celebrating independence in a land that spies on its citizens

As we come to this Fourth of July, some citizens are up in arms over what some might call another "long train of abuses and usurpations," as it was originally written in the Declaration. I'm speaking, of course, about the NSA/PRISM stink.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

John Adams was quite the party animal.

After signing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, he wrote to Abigail, saying of the day, "It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

Screeeeeeech. Rewind. Let's get a few things straight, shall we?

First, Adams never said the Fourth of July should be celebrated. He was convinced July 2 was the big day. Why? Well, as it turns out, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of Independence on July 2. Adams, it turns out, wrote his most effective policy statement (you know, the bonfires, bells, guns, games, parties, parades and illuminations one) on July 3, 1776 — not July 4.

That's okay — we now celebrate July 4 because, while everyone voted on July 2, the Founding Fathers signed on July 4. And that's what really matters, right?

Well, not so much.

According to George Mason University, pretty much nobody signed the document on July 4. Some of our founders signed it on July 2, some signed it during a signing ceremony on August 2 (which, arguably, was the closest to the scene we all have in our heads) and some of the rest got around to signing it one day (there are, apparently, no records of which day) in January of 1777.

That's not to say that revisionist history is a modern invention. Yes, the document does say — right at the top, in big bold letters — "In Congress, July 4, 1776." And yes, in later years, both Adams and Jefferson will claim the document was signed on July 4, 1776. Even so, historians have been able to prove that was just the date on the document and it was absolutely not signed on July 4.

The one thing about July 4 that is true? John Adams died on July 4, 1826 and TJ also died on July 4, 1826, just hours apart. (UPDATE: fixed typo here)

For those of you who don't have copies of the Declaration and the Constitution — in case there's a need for quick reference — sequestered in the bathroom magazine stand, or installed as apps on your smartphone, or sitting on your computer desktop as high-res images, the Declaration pretty much says to King George, "You are not the boss of me."

And yes, I do have the above. All three.

The Declaration says that America, as a nation, is no longer subject to the rule of King George. It's the Constitution, ratified eleven years later, that defines how our nation would operate. The details of U.S. citizen rights wouldn't be codified until 1791 in the Bill of Rights.

As we come to this July 4, some citizens are up in arms over what some might call another "long train of abuses and usurpations," as it was originally written in the Declaration. I'm speaking, of course, about the NSA/PRISM stink that's been all over the news for the past month.

We've had deep discussions about the meaning of metadata, we've worried about how to protect ourselves from the NSA and other eavesdroppers, and we've lost some faith in our tech giants.

None of this changes what America's counterterrorism forces do as part of their job protecting the lives of American citizens. After all, as Jason Perlow so eloquently stated, the NSA has been all up in your privacy junk since 1952.

So how do we reconcile all this news with our yearly, officially-sanctioned barbecue and bottle-rocket festival? How can we celebrate our independence when our own government seems to see nothing wrong in tracking and collecting all our digital footprints?

First, understand that not all is as it seems.

In the same way that we celebrate Independence Day on the Fourth of July, even though nothing particularly interesting or memorable actually happened on July 4, 1776, we should understand that the snippets of PowerPoints being reported by the Guardian and Washington Post are just that: snippets.

Americans aren't being told the whole story, not because they can't handle it (after all, the press eats this stuff up), but because disclosing the details of how we track and defend against nation state enemies of America and terrorist actors is not in our strategic best interests. So, while some press reports may make it seem like the NSA is listening in on all your phone calls or reading all your email, the government just isn't that into you.

There has been a positive result from all these stories, though. We're discussing privacy again. We're discussing a future based on digital communications. We're thinking through the implications of digital tracking, and we're even discussing how the mainstream media got the PRISM story so hopelessly wrong.

This sort of intelligent (if somewhat overwrought) discussion is a big part of what America is all about. Independence Day (whenever it really happened) came about because our Founding Fathers were introspective enough to think through the meaning of governance.

They were able separate the frivolous ("Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes") from the intolerable ("a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States").

Our Founding Fathers spent decades thinking about what it meant to be a nation, how individual rights can be balanced with the needs of the nation as a whole. They got some of it right (the Constitution, the Bill of Rights), and even knew that some of it would go off the rails (political parties), and they laid a groundwork for a future that's worked relatively well for almost 250 years.

So this Independence Day, cook up those hot dogs, grill up those burgers, march through your towns, set off your illuminations and have a great time. John Adams insisted you do, and partying like it's 1776 will honor his name.

But as you do, as you take that last ill-advised bite of the third helping of that oh-I-ate-too-much apple pie, think about what privacy means to Americans going into the future. Think about how much privacy we're willing to give up for services from Facebook and Google. Think about how our Constitution and Bill of Rights apply to digital communications.

Finally, spend a moment to hoist a toast to the efforts of the thousands of faceless government servants who've bravely and selflessly fought back the tyranny of terrorists these last years.

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