Media is ruining the NSA debate

June 27, 2013: 10:29 AM ET

The debate over how much privacy we should give up in return for how much protection is necessary, but complicated. It's too important leave it to Twitter and cable news.

Complex.

Complex.

FORTUNE -- The revelation of the National Security Agency's collecting all our telephone metadata has supposedly sparked a "national conversation" -- a great debate taking on all the thorny issues surrounding privacy vs. security. Even President Obama said, "I welcome this debate, and I think it's healthy for our democracy." And he's right, though his words would have carried more weight had he uttered them before the secret, ongoing program was revealed.

Sadly, though, the "national conversation" has for the most part been shallow, often bordering on stupid. That's because nearly everybody has retreated to their respective camps, refusing to recognize the validity of opposed arguments or the fact that this there is no easy solution to the problem of how we should go about strengthening our security while also, to the extent possible, protecting liberty and privacy. It's also because so much of the "conversation" has taken place on Twitter, where conversations, and certainly debates, should never take place, because they are engineered to be superficial. (Twitter's great for linking to stuff and for issuing pithy one-liners; it's absolutely useless for conversation.) In defending longstanding worldviews, rather than honestly addressing the issue, people are talking past each other.

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For example, probably the best, most informed, and informative argument so far (whether you agree with its conclusions or not) has been lodged by David Simon, a longtime crime reporter in Baltimore, and, oh yeah, the creator of The Wire. In several carefully considered but pointed posts on his blog, he has defended the NSA program (the most comprehensive one is here). In doing so, he has taken seriously all the serious arguments against it, and, with intellectual honesty and rigor, answered each one. And he has acknowledged all the flaws in the program. Some people have argued against him at some length, and quite eloquently. But some others have chosen instead to confine their responses to the tidal flats of Twitter, where, predictably, they were vacuous and vapid when they weren't downright puerile.

That doesn't mean that (relatively) more lengthy counterarguments are necessarily much better, or less slight than the arguments over whether Edward Snowden, who leaked the program, is a "hero" or a "villain." (Let's leave that stuff to the cable networks.) Conor Friedersdorf, a right-leaning writer for The Atlantic, issued responses that missed whole swaths of Simon's argument and mischaracterized other swaths. Just for one of many examples (you can see more of them in the comments on Simon's blog, where the two men debated a bit), Friedersdorf appears to have missed the several instances of Simon acknowledging that the NSA program is almost certain to be abused [Update/correction: Friedersdorf did in fact address Simon's point here. Readers can judge whether he characterized it fairly and adequately]. That in fact is a major pillar of Simon's argument: All the tools of law enforcement are abused all the time, but that doesn't mean we should take all those tools away. If we did, we'd be in big trouble. What we do is, we try our best to reign in the abuses (which, as Simon acknowledges, is made much more difficult given the shroud of unnecessary secrecy over this program).

Friedersdorf's main complaint seems to be that Simon's argument is rather complicated. Well, yes -- it's a complicated issue. That's the point. But Simon's post is highly readable and highly cogent, despite Friedersdorf's characterization of it as a "disjointed tirade" (a description that actually better fits Friedersdorf's responses). Elsewhere, Friedersdorf says his confusion comes from the fact that Simon's argument is "in tension with itself," as if this were a bad thing.

Arguments that aren't in tension with themselves are rarely worth paying attention to. Complicated issues are tension-filled by their nature, and examinations of them must acknowledge this and respond accordingly. There are trade-offs to everything. Of course we'd rather live in a world where the government felt no need to collect our telephone data, but we don't, so we're forced to carefully and thoughtfully consider all the pros, cons, and potential pitfalls. We'd also rather live in a world where we don't have to worry about the government abusing its powers, but of course we don't. Admittedly, it's much easier to either just yell "Liberty!" as many of the NSA program's detractors have essentially done, or to just yell "Security!" as many of the more witless champions of the program have done. It's more challenging to refrain from taking a "side" on the issue before doing the hard work of reading, talking, and thinking about it dispassionately, and confronting all the arguments head-on with intellectual honesty and rigor.

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Simon even uses the word "tension" toward the end of his piece. He believes that this particular collection of our data is a necessary sacrifice, similar to other sacrifices we have made in the past in the communal national interest (it would be much better if we had made this sacrifice KNOWINGLY, but nevertheless). Instead of giving up some fuel oil and lard as we did during World War II, we're giving up a bit of our privacy. Making such sacrifices is part of what Simon believes is part of maintaining "an abiding social compact among Americans," while also maintaining "a lattice of individual liberties."

But of course, those things are at odds with each other, as happens with many issues: Corporate profits and environmental health are both good things, but often at odds. Internet freedom and copyright are both good things, but often at odds. And so on. There is tension between them, which must be navigated, not denied. "I credit both liberty and responsibility," Simon writes, "and believe it's actually in the necessary tension between those two ideals that great societies are built."

It's how ours was built. But when it comes to the "national conversation," on any number of issues, the tension seems to be slackening.

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