ast summer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel unwittingly got to the heart of eavesdropping allegations now unsettling relations between Europe and the United States. “Not everything that is technically doable,” she said, “should be done.”
It was an eminently “old Europe” remark that took into account the unspoken role of restraint in the relations between states, and above all between allies. For decades among Western democracies, the doable had implicit limits, a standard qualified in part by an American respect for European sensibility, which predated the humbling of World War II. High-level spying, while active, was on a very tight leash.
But if ever those limits and their leashes had fallen from fashion, that time is now — in the digitally nimble early 21st-century — particularly in the United States.
In fairness, the idea of doing anything and everything (especially the latest thing) has always appealed to the nimble American mind. It was America that ushered in a “new is good” culture that in the 1950s saw then-Vice President Richard Nixon try to persuade a skeptical Russian named Nikita Khrushchev that he couldn’t do without modern refrigerators. The young U.S. has always reveled in breakthroughs and their excitable peddling.
Though Nixon proved right about the value of cold storage, Cold War restraint was bigger than America’s newfangled coils and he couldn’t insist. Communism chose instead to sneer at appliances, focusing instead on weapons and wiretapping, and ultimately collapsed. But it didn’t collapse because the U.S. suddenly parachuted a Sears & Roebuck kitchen into Moscow, or drop bombs, however appealing one or the other idea might have seemed appealing. Though doable — admittedly at the risk of World War II — calmer heads said it shouldn’t be.
What the post-Big Brother U.S. often fails to fully fathom is just how much its burgeoning digital movement has decimated precisely that kind of restraint, putting the timid doable at the mercy of relentless “do it,” particularly when it comes to all aspects of communicating and listening in. Digital restlessness is a constituent part of amoral being, with calmer heads increasingly hard to find.
Give an online American a choice between transmitting excitement and holding it at bay — even mindful of the consequences of overreaction — the temptations of transmission are likely to come first, particularly when restraint can mean non-inclusion or a lack of relevance, a scarlet letter that digital marketing warns against. Failure to transmit is also a failure of motivation that knows no age barrier. It reflects the unhappy passive. Better then to capitulate to the allure of the doable and if necessary apologize later. Or, back to refrigerators and bombs, best to drop them into Moscow first, and if you happen to start a war, say you didn’t mean to. Or try.
When the NSA listened into the mobile phone conversations of European leaders it did so not because it had to but because it could, perhaps emboldened by invasive post-9/11 policies such as extreme rendition. How the leaders — heads of friendly states — would react if they found out just didn’t matter, trumped by the “how cool is that!” thrill of the act.
That the monitoring of allies might be a liability was something cooler heads should have weighed and introduced into high-level debate. They apparently did no such thing, or were absent altogether.
Not surprisingly, what has been front-page news in Europe has yet to upset the eavesdroppers. For those who consider restraint old school or see the doable as a precursor to the done, the European complaint is whiny. Privacy is incompatible with the digital age, and spying, after all, is both sport and pastime. Let Merkel sulk.
But the European Union isn’t the united states of anything. National privacy still matters and loose lips can detonate geopolitical dynamite. Germany isn’t always a fan of France, and vice versa. Never mind that much of Europe was once divided between east and west, with systematic snooping mostly associated with totalitarian states. The NSA brushed past these cosmetic details, apparently under two presidential administrations.
In a world that has anointed the word “whatever” as an escape hatch, rationalizations are as endless as their implications are troubling. Least agreeable among them is the mere existence of digital possibility.
What a relief, in retrospect, that the doable of the nuclear age proved too scary for its handlers, who chose instead to place the emphasis on state industry, Leningrad, or improved refrigerators, Des Moines — and even then without insisting too unduly that all others had to follow suit or else.
“How cool is that!” in times unwilling to distinguish between the “can” and the “should” — the conditional to end all conditionals — would have prompted hell’s freezing over, no apologies possible, with another kind of coolness settling in for an eternity.