‘They’re trying to kill me,’ Yossarian told him calmly.
‘No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
‘Then why are they shooting at me?’ Yossarian asked.
‘They’re shooting at everyone,’ Clevinger answered. ‘They’re trying to kill everyone.’

‘What difference does that make?’ –Joseph Heller – Catch 22

James R Clapper

An imaginary dialogue with James Clapper

70 years later…

- I’m being spied on, Yossarian told him calmly.
- No one is spying on you, Clapper cried.
- Then why are they listening to all my phone calls, studying everything I read or write, following me everywhere I go.
- No one is listening or following you, they’re listening to everyone, and following everyone.
- What difference does that make?
- They’re just recording every detail of your life in case someday they need it.
- What could they possibly need every detail of my boring-ass life for?
- Maybe you’re a terrorist, what do I know?
- Of course I’m not a terrorist. That’s absurd.
- Well, there was that IM message about wanting to slash your boss’s tyres the other day…
- But I didn’t even send that, it was just a ridiculous fleeting rage fantasy that I deleted. See, that’s what I’m talking about, this ridiculous intrusion into my privacy.
- What do you mean privacy? You go onto a third-party site, sign up for their TOS, and start typing stuff like that. You’ve already consented to giving up any claim to privacy. You’re totally entitled to forgo third-party services if you want privacy.
- So what, I’m supposed to give up my phone, my car, any internet activity whatsoever, basically any advanced electronics, if I want to be able to claim privacy?
- Yes, you’re totally free to do that. But, naturally that would be really suspicious, since nobody innocent or moderately well-adjusted would choose to live like that. And then we’d obviously have to more actively watch your every move.
- I’m just supposed to let them pry into every aspect of my life like that, then?
- Nobody is … (Clapper draws little quotation marks in the air like he’s Nixon boarding a helicopter) prying (end airquotes). They’re just recording. It’s a recruitment tool. See, one day maybe you’ll come into contact with someone who knows someone who’s a terrorist. Or an environmental activist, or a labor activist, or works for a foreign corporation or government. And we may need you to inform us about what they say or do or stuff they have.
- And why would I do that?
- You want your boss to know about that tyre-slashing incident?
- But I never actually did anything!
- That’s really neither here nor there, is it now? If you just help us out we won’t mention that, nor your lurking around his wife’s Facebook page.
- She has really good muffin recipes!
- It just looks a bit suspicious, is all I’m saying.
- See, see, this is what I’m talking about. It’s grotesque since everything and anything can be made to look suspicious if you’ve got a buttload of info on someone. Not to mention I feel violated even knowing you know it all.
- Well, if it will make you feel better. There aren’t really that many of us. Only 850 000 of us have access to classified files. Government agencies, private defense contractors, tech contractors. You know, people we can trust not to misuse the info. It all stays in the family. And we only actually access them if there is something suspicious. Or something juicy, like hot phone sex or revealing selfies. Hell, THAT stuff gets passed around. But hey, if your daughter starts undressing with the laptop open on her bedroom table, that’s pretty much consent for us to activate the camera feed right there. Right?
- MY DAUGHTER?!
- You should really talk to her about it, my friend. Must be some exhibitionist phase she’s going through. I’m sure it’ll pass. The point is, your odd little sensibilities aside, we’re not interfering in your life in any way. We’re just watching, listening, recording. And then, in only a few thousand cases, we use that info to get people to do stuff for us. But for the rest of you, you won’t be bothered at all. There’s no infringement on your right to freedom of speech, movement, physical searches or seizures, all that stuff. As long as you don’t do or say anything that might upset the government or any government contractors, we’re cool.
- But freedom of speech is already taking a hit. 27% of US writers say they censor themselves or have been thinking seriously about doing so since the surveillance revelations came out. The leading lights of our polity, our society, our culture, those who make sure our democracy stays vibrant, they’re deliberately shutting up out of sheer fear.
- Hey it’s a free country. People are free to engage in self-censorship in the privacy of their own minds if they so wish. And if our brightest minds think silence is a virtue, who am I to object.

Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons.