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No longer can the right of privacy be expected in any walk of life

February 26, 2006

If you are president of the United States of America, you know the bar has been set pretty low when a commentator praises your performance in the State of the Union address because you "came off as basically competent," as Tom Shales wrote this month in The Washington Post.

So it is with George Bush, the Republican's Jimmy Carter. He's nice enough and he may mean well, but you also realize he's in about six miles over his head.

Ideologues on the right will defend the president just because he is a Republican. Ideologues on the left will sit on the edge of their seats every time the president opens his mouth, eagerly hoping he will go down in flames.

The rest are left with the hope that Bush will serve out the rest of his term as quietly and as uneventfully as possible so we can summon up a new leader who can begin to repair the damage.

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Some of this damage though is beyond repair, most notably the attack on our right of privacy - a right, of course, which is so basic, so obvious, that Madison never bothered to specifically mention it by name in the Constitution, just as he never enumerated our right to eat or our right to breathe.

Certainly he had to assume that there would be some bad presidents in the course of our history; what he couldn't have know is the technology they would be armed with.

And now it's too late. Privacy is dead.

Nothing you write, nothing you say and nothing you do can be considered safe from public scrutiny anymore. The government can seize your e-mail. It can tap your phones. It watches you through cameras at intersections and city streets. It can monitor your property by satellite. In fact, the only institution that can still meet secretly is the one that shouldn't - government itself.

And don't think for a second that only "incoming, foreign correspondence" is subject to taps. That was the foot that will blow the door wide open.

A century from now, history may remember the Bush Administration as the gang that fired the last bullet into privacy's brain, but it is by no means the instigator or sole practitioner of intrusion. More accurate to say this administration, and its lack of intellectual strength, provided the logical and inevitable conclusion to a process that's been a half-century in the making. If not now, it would have been the next administration too unimaginative, desperate or weak-minded to fight its demons through anything other than intrusion.

Looking back, it was probably the license plate that sent us down this slippery slope, although more reasoned people might argue it all began with the Social Security number - which old-timers will tell you was never supposed to be used as identification.

Each little registration number, each incremental advancement in technology took us down another peg. And it all seemed so harmless at the time, we never knew what was happening to us. In fact, the peddlers of this government-intrusion snake oil told us at every turn it was for our protection. Inevitably they use the words "public safety." When you hear the words "public safety" brace yourself, because a few more of your rights are about to crumble away.

It all sounds so good at the time. Fingerprinting all children? Great idea, it will discourage child kidnappings. Intersection cameras? Wonderful, it will prevent accidents by discouraging the running of red lights. Tracking your Web searches? Hey, cuts down on pornography.

Very, very well-meaning people have championed these little intrusions. And these people become the willing and enthusiastic tools of those who would snoop for more sinister purposes - those who would stoop to running the country not on hope and promise and the pursuit of happiness, but on fear.

Be certain, they do not fear for you at all; what they fear is the loss of their own power.

If we could count on them to stop with the terrorists, with the pornographers and with the bandits it might not be a problem. But they never do. They will wait until we get used to our Web searches and our e-mail being watched and then take the next logical step - tapping directly into our computers. And hey, if you're not doing anything wrong you have nothing to hide, right?

Well, to pick one group off the top of my head, the American Revolutionaries had something they wanted to hide from government, and with good reason.

Here you have to admire the champions of the Second Amendment, if not for their guns then for their acumen. They have known, better than the rest of us, what happens if one, tiny little part of a right is eroded, and they have fought such erosion even over issues that have seemed mindless and silly, such as ID tags mixed in with fertilizers that can be turned into bombs.

The rest of us have not said anything about intrusions into our privacy here and there, because it was always in the name of the children, or in the name of being safe and snugly right in our beds - where we now find the government firmly entrenched as well.

And now, thanks to the malicious playing on the ignorant, privacy is gone. For good. Some day we will have a president worse, maybe far worse, than George Bush.

And when we do, what evil seeds will this person sow in the intrusional ground that we have so willingly allowed our current administration to plow?

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