What goes around comes around. Mitt Romney--who as governor called for wiretapping mosques and pioneered the creation of the so-called Commonwealth Fusion Center that keeps us all under surveillance--now finds himself in a storm of controversy over self-described off the cuff remarks caught on tape at a major-donor fundraiser.
In a forum like that, of course, a presidential candidate has no reasonable expectation of privacy--but the rest of us ordinary citizens do as we go about our lives, and Romney has led efforts to dismiss those privacy rights.
Unfortunately, however, Romney is far from the only one who has made himself vulnerable to this style of poetic justice. As much as some might enjoy watching him squirm in this present moment of unexpectedly amplified candor, President Obama--whose administration has led the way for continued or even expanded surveillance of ordinary Americans, and more secrecy--has found himself in tight spots too, such as explaining private remarks this spring to Russian president Medvedev. And even as great a communicator as Ronald Reagan landed himself in trouble with his infamous "We begin bombing in five minutes" joke at the height of the Cold War.
The real lesson here is not just that presidents and presidential candidates deserve this unwanted attention as a taste of their own medicine--though it's interesting and illuminating that even they seem taken aback when it happens to them. The lesson is also certainly not that we should all just forget about privacy, and simply watch what we say in this brave new world of almost nonstop surveillance.
The true lesson to learn from these gaffes is that in a free society, the mics, the cameras, and all the other instruments of surveillance we've devised should--by default, except when they're really needed--stay turned off.
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