Postscript ||: Our Government has No Right to Hide Its Actions

This is a guest post by Jesse Stavis, another one of the students at the NSA session. The first postscript by me (Madiha) available below.

My name is Jesse Stavis.  I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I was the male student in the recording.  Madiha has graciously invited me to share some final thoughts on our confrontation with the NSA.  I’ll try to keep this brief:

1. I have never been involved in anything that’s come anywhere close to receiving the exposure that this incident has.  I will admit that it was exciting to see this story go quasi-viral.  The fact that comments that were made in a room with perhaps twenty audience members eventually reached hundreds of thousands of people speaks to the power that the internet has as a tool for political and social advocacy.  This should remind us of why it’s so important to protect the openness of the internet and the privacy of our communications on it.

2. A few days after this story broke, my feelings of excitement and pride in what we had accomplished gave way to a lingering feeling of depression.  To put it bluntly, this should not have been a big story.  The big story should have been about congressional representatives asking tough questions of the people at the top levels of the NSA.  We should have been reading about Lt. Gen. Clapper being investigated for perjury.  The fact that a few graduate students peppering recruiters with tough questions received so much attention speaks to the utterly dysfunctional condition of our political system as a whole and of the Democratic Party in particular.

3. While most people have been supportive of what we did, a number of commenters have suggested that we were wrong to confront low-level employees who were just doing their job.  I want to make one thing clear: These were not low-level employees.  They were what I would describe as upper mid-level managers.  They told us that they had a combined fifty-five years of experience at the NSA. Without the support and consent of people like this, the surveillance machine could not exist.  I don’t think that they are stupid people or evil people.  I do think that they are people who have abdicated their moral agency and thus allowed for something very scary and very evil to come into existence.  It’s our responsibility as educated citizens to remind these people that they do have the power to effect real change.

4. A number of people have written that they wished that there were a video recording of this event.  I’m not so sure that they would have liked what they would have seen.  They would have seen three people aggressively challenging the recruiters while fifteen or twenty other people who were actually considering working at the NSA sat stone-faced and bored, waiting for this unfortunate interruption to end.  They would have seen the high school teacher sitting next to me muttering through a clenched jaw about how indescribably rude we were being.  They would have seen just how much more we have to accomplish when it comes to convincing our fellow citizens that our government has no right to hide its actions from its citizens.

5. Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious, I want to make it clear that I take very little credit for anything that was accomplished at that meeting.  Without someone as brave, informed, and articulate as Madiha Tahir, this wouldn’t have been a story at all.  I am deeply, deeply impressed by her, and I hope that you are too.

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