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Letters from Downunder

Knowledge is power

Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

Dost thou not know, my son,
with how little wisdom the worlds is governed?
Count Oxenstierna, 1648

(12/2013) The title above is the motto of my old college, one that was supposed to inspire its students to learn; it was assumed that power was the ultimate goal, and you could not get it without knowledge. It took me decades to realize that this was quite stupid – it takes a lot more than knowledge to achieve power, (especially personal drive and desire, hard work and planning), and that once achieved you have to learn how to use it.

When it comes to national power, however, a different picture emerges. Every nation, every state, clan and organization possesses power by virtue of its existence, and in order to retain autonomy must learn how to wield and maintain it. No matter which era in history is studied, the use of power is always a large part of the picture, and the very structure of every society is the constantly changing result. Our daily lives are regulated by it, our desires and plans are moderated by it, and most of us soon learn to live with the major dictates it brings.

Groups and societies that are small enough and sufficiently isolated find it easy to recognize both their friends and enemies, and to deal with them according to custom and experience. As the size of cities and nations grow this becomes more difficult, and complications, machinations and power plays become problems; loyalty and trust start to suffer, and information about the opposition becomes more and more vital. This in turn leads to the development of covert information gathering, often through diplomats, embassies and secret networks, and by the we time arrive in the present day this has become a major part of every country’s armoury.

The world has never had power shared equally among its nations, and empires have come and gone over the millennia, but the battle for supremacy entered a new era with the advent of the internet. No one foresaw the speed with which this technology would develop, no one imagined the ends to which it would be put, and most of us became resigned to sitting back and letting the thing rip, unable to comprehend, or even use, the latest devices; this was the realm of the child and the nerd, happy to play in the foam of the incoming ocean waves.

At the same time the sheer mass of humanity caused intense political and sectarian divisions, bringing revolt and terrorism that quickly became adept at using the web for its own purposes, spreading out from known sources into a myriad other groups and individuals who were opposed in some way to their ruling elites. And this became the greatest ever challenge for the nations that were and are being targeted, chief among them being the United States. Reams have been written of why this is so, but although the why is more important, it is less immediate.

The saga of 9/11 became a fissure in the bedrock of stability, and allowed the magma of impossible fear to well up and scarify the collected awareness of the nation. Carefully considered responses became anathema, and wave after wave of anti-terrorist laws and departments appeared. The real growth, however, was in intelligence gathering, for it was obvious that lack of knowledge was lack of preventative and retaliatory power. And America, being the home of silicon valley and all that it stands for, was able to utilize its world-wide-web ability to collect, filter, assess, and prepare reports that became plans and strategies to deal with future threats. The world of electronic innovation was more fruitful than that of weapon development in the second world war; software, security and spying became the cloud on which the angels dwelt.

All well and good. No nation has ever gone quietly when confronted with invasion – for that is what 9/11 was eventually seen as – and it was not hard to realize that the re-action above would soon become pre-action, or, as it is now known, proactive strategy. When areas other than anti-terrorism were inevitably added, a course of action was set in motion that has now got the whole world talking, screaming, shaking its head, and bringing forth justification on one side and disbelief on the other.

Enter, shadowlike and stage left, the covert world of the NSA.

We may never know when it extended its security brief into military, trade and diplomatic ones, but its justification is obvious: If, for example, Al Qaeda sets up cells in a friendly Western country which has its own anti-terrorist capability, America needs to know at once. If the cells are disguised as trade or manufacturing, for instance, America might not necessarily find out – who knows if that western country has sufficient ability and will to determine it – so it is essential that the NSA find that out as well.

Which puts the definition of ‘friend’ in the same basket as that of ‘enemy’, and backlights the icon of American paranoia. Yes, there’s a saying that you need to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but nowhere is there a maxim to turn your friends into potential enemies, even if you know they are doing the same as you. Trust is trust, and trying to weed out any bits that might be suspect (according to you) are quite unfriendly acts. Distrust is just that, and they don’t mix too well. But, once having entered into the world of double-dealing, the dictionary of double-speak emerges: "We’ve got obligations to the American people…. We’ve got obligations to our allies…. We’ve got to find the right balance here… we’re imbalanced as we stand here."(John Boehner). "Spying on foreign leaders…. was a basic pillar of U.S. intelligence operations…" (James Clapper)

And, as it turns out, it is easier to spy on foreigners than on Americans in America, yet every user of Google and Yahoo can be accessed through NSA’s program ‘Prism’, which has ‘front door’ access to their accounts by court order. That was not enough, apparently. Over 180 million new reports were acquired by NSA from Yahoo and Google in January last through the back door. The companies say they were not aware of this activity, but the result included ‘metadata’, meaning source and recipient details were available, as well as video, text and audio. Naturally, the NSA will not confirm or deny this, but the figures were supplied by America’s second most wanted citizen, Edward Snowden, who got this whole ball of wax started. Like the Wiki leaks revelations, the guys behind the leaks are offshore, knowing that if they surface they will be Guantanamo’ed forthwith. The world of secrets is enormous, and exposure of even a little is too much because it shows the extent of the clandestine operations around the world.

Whether the expressed exasperation of certain European leaders is genuine, or a ‘shock-horror’ cover is irrelevant. What is not are the questions of civil liberty, democratic transparency, world peace, and finally that of trust. All the knowledge in the world is meaningless if it cannot be interpreted in a sane and far-reaching way. The world cannot run on mistrust, especially when it is big brother doing the mistrusting. Suspicion and fear are the province of dictators, yet the need to protect a country and its citizens from invasion and random destruction is paramount. This is the balancing act that is needed, and so far it seems that the spectre of 9/11 has tipped the scales on the side of the totalitarian response.

Yes, we know that some threats have been kept to the status of potential, not actual, and that may be a worthwhile thing, but when you are all more likely to die from a gunshot, traffic accident, poor food, lack of sanitation or simple despair that you are from terrorism, surely it is time to stop crouching in the shadows and make social reforms next on the agenda. Of course, that doesn't make good copy.

I reckon you already know that one of the most important things to have in life is a true friend. One you trust, who trusts you, and who is prepared to share the problems and anxieties of the day. One who supports you, does not aspire to dupe or cheat you, and who at times comes with an insight, a ray of light, a gem of wisdom. Time to show those qualities to your allies, once staunch friends, now more suspicious, but nonetheless a sure way to kill off terrorism. You cannot do it alone.

Knowledge may be power, but we can never know it all and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing - it is national wisdom that is urgently needed.

Lindsay, down under. Trust me, I won’t tell.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker