The Monitor's View

NSA spying on allies: What must now change

Revelations of alleged NSA spying on American allies such as Germany's Angela Merkel must lead to a change in how the security agencies view differences between people.

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    Demonstrators rally near the US Capitol in Washington Oct. 26 to demand that Congress investigate the National Security Agency's mass surveillance programs.
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Soon after he won the White House, President Obama declared to the world, “The interests that we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.” It was a hopeful sentiment, one aimed at reversing a conflict-based way of thinking that had long pervaded American politics and foreign policy.

Yet an us-versus-them mentality seems to have been par for the course among US spy agencies, starting long before the Obama era. Revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden allege that the NSA tapped the cellphones of as many as 35 world leaders, even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a close ally.

The excuses for this high-level spying do not fit the normal “everybody does it” rationale among nations. Electronic snooping of an ally’s personal phone is particularly invasive and unnecessary. It hints at paranoia and pessimism run amuck, even in a post-9/11 threat environment. It harks back to the days of Watergate and McCarthyism.

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As Mr. Obama now tries to restore trust in the United States, he must tell his security officials to be careful in not accepting the view that all people should be pigeonholed into a class or grouping, such as friend or foe. That can easily lead to an oversimplified, black-and-white mode of operation that creates enemies more imagined than real. And it certainly does not reflect Obama’s view that humans share more interests than the forces that drive them apart.

Human beings are too complex and varied to be stuffed into a label that is then considered determinative of how they will behave. Men are not always from Mars, for example, nor women from Venus. A person’s identity lies in individual qualities of thought, not an assemblage of perceptions about them in a mass grouping based on past behavior.

Sifting people into categories is a way to polarize them by “the other” and set everyone up for conflict. While much of written history assumes that change comes out of conflicts over differences – barbarian versus civilized, Christians versus Muslim, women versus men – the fact is that progress has been achieved more through cooperation than by contention.

“Human relations are ... about blending, borrowing, interacting, and interconnecting,” says British historian David Cannadine. “A divided past is in fact only part of the human story. It may be the one that makes the headlines, but, arguably, it’s not the only one and it’s probably not the most important one either.”

Journalists are particularly prone to typecast people by gender, social class, religion, nationality, or even race and ethnicity, a tendency made stronger as the news business struggles to retain audiences. Such an unexamined bias, for example, has led more TV news stations to compartmentalize themselves into liberal (MSNBC) and conservative (Fox News), even though Americans tend to mix and match their political views.

Most people prefer to affirm their individuality while discovering and building their common humanity. They don’t see the world as only a “clash of civilizations” or a Manichaean struggle between good and evil.

Language by its very nature tends toward labels. That tendency, while helpful at times, can often mislead.

As Obama now seeks to change how US intelligence agencies select targets for surveillance, he must insist they resist the “impulse ... to sunder all the peoples of the world into belligerent collectivities,” as historian Mr. Cannadine states. A balanced view is needed by taking into account people’s commonalities as well as their contrasts.

“I note the obvious differences between each form and type,” wrote poet Maya Angelou. “But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

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