WASHINGTON, May 24, 2015 – Rand Paul is not literally Captain America (though his father Ron Paul served with Captain America in the Second World War [spoof]). But as demonstrated by his recent epic eleven hour (non) filibuster on the Senate floor protesting the Patriot Act, Rand Paul is fighting one of the same enemies Captain America battles.
As is the case with Cap, he might be our only hope to defeat it.
That enemy is not the Red Skull. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America argues angrily with SHIELD spy chief Nick Fury about PRISM, a new program the elite intelligence/special forces’ paramilitary organization has developed to eliminate security threats before they materialize. The key element: assassinating would-be security threats before they become threatening.
“I thought the punishment came after the crime,” Captain Rogers says to Fury.
“We can’t afford to wait that long,” Fury replies.
Soon after that discussion, they learn that a rouge Nazi group within SHEILD called “Hydra” has hijacked the program for a much more ambitious, cruelly utilitarian purpose along the same lines. When Captain Falcon − an awesome addition to the franchise played by long-underrated character actor Anthony Mackie − and The Avengers’ Black Widow interrogate a Hydra double agent about the program, he reveals Hydra’s intent not only to eliminate potential terrorists before they become terrorists, but all people the world over who might oppose their new world order by the tens of millions.
The agent reveals the methodology behind the program. An algorithm designed by a Swedish Nazi scientist named “Zola” − whose consciousness was downloaded into a computer system − evaluates the personal data of everyone on the planet to determine whether or not they are a threat to Hydra, “now, or in the future.” A message naming those deemed to be a threat is transmitted to a giant warship in the sky that targets and eliminates them with guided missiles.
“In the future?” says Captain America curiously. “How could it know?”
“How could it not?” the agent replies. “The 21st century is a digital book…your bank records, medical histories, voting patterns, emails, phone calls, your [darn] SAT scores. Zola’s algorithm evaluates people’s pasts, to predict their futures.”
The relevance of all this to currently raging political arguments is deeper than might first be apparent. The tendency of U.S. foreign policy towards to embrace pre-emptive justice is clear enough when looking back at America’s quickness to invade Iraq when Iraq had not, nor was likely to, attack us.
Another example includes the willingness of so many in our country to invade Iran should Iran achieve a nuclear weapon, but before it becomes certain that Iran will launch any sort of attack. The rationale behind this is the fear that we could not afford to wait that long.
In domestic law enforcement, however, we find that increasingly, the punishment comes before the crime. This kind of zealousness applied to criminal prevention is enabled by the increasing vastness of our domestic intelligence gathering efforts.
The NSA, Homeland Security, the FBI and the rest of our dizzyingly broad and complex national security apparatus collects an enormous amount of data about the American people, purportedly for the purposes of guaranteeing our safety. The NSA and other agencies are thus seeking to read the “digital book” that is the behavior of the American people and to isolate from that information those Americans that, in different ways, might be criminal or security threats “now, or in the future.”
“This is allowing the NSA to use your meta-data—phone records, etc.—who you call, how long you speak…under the Patriot Act to create social networks of Americans,” to determine who we are and who might be threatening, Rand Paul stated on the Senate floor.
The scope of the data collected (by different agencies) is beyond merely phone and email records, as Senator Paul made clear. The evaluation of mass data even spreads to our bank records.
Private banking institutions are required to submit “Suspicious Activity Reports” to the government every time an individual “structures” cash deposits nearing but falling beneath $10000 to avoid the automatic scrutiny this triggers from the government in its attempt to identify criminal behavior. Such individuals are subject to punitive actions from law enforcement.
“Well it turns out, a lot of honest, law abiding people do that,” as Senator Paul observed, noting the example of a Korean couple who owned a grocery store and “structured” their payments simply to avoid the additional paperwork that accompanied deposits above $10,000 at their bank. They were unaware that they would be subject to criminal punishments for it.
A similar situation can be seen in Civil Asset Forfeiture cases, in which private property is confiscated on suspicion of its having been involved in illegal activity. Parents have had their homes confiscated because a child who lived with them was known to sell drugs, for example, even if the parents were neither guilty of wrongdoing nor in possession of prior knowledge of the child’s activities.
Likewise, racial profiling frequently lead to harassment and invasion of privacy on the thinnest pretax of probable cause. As Paul has written, “Anyone who does not think that race does not still, even inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country just is not paying enough attention.”
Data mining for the purposes of identifying and punishing criminal and security threats before they’ve materialized is a very real trend today in American security and law enforcement. We may not yet have arrived at the point where certain data combinations trigger a guided missile at our front doors − though the current administration regards this as a legal option − but the direction of many current preventative security practices is alarming.
As Senator Paul eloquently put in his remarks on the Senate floor, “Once upon a time we had a standard in this country that an individual was innocent until proven guilty. We’ve given up on so much. Now people are talking about a standard that is ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’… Is that the standard we’re willing to live under?”
Rand Paul may not wield a cool shield, and he may not be a Marvel super hero. But he is clearly fighting a battle for liberty and the security of our values that is applicable to both black and white, left and right. His recent actions in defense of liberty call to mind the enduring pronouncement of Benjamin Franklin, who once said that “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”
Rand Paul reminds us that the point of being an American is freedom On the national level in many areas he’s doing this alone. In so doing, he’s hero enough.