Government Surveillance and America
Ground Zero in the aftermath of the WTC terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
More than 20 years have passed since the horrendous September 11 attacks that shook the very foundation of America and the world at large. Seismic changes took place after that traumatic day, from how deeply we are scrutinized when get on a plane, to government surveillance expanding its dominion over the average American. Passed a mere 45 days after the terrorist attacks, the most infamous of these changes to our daily lives was the Patriot Act.
This piece of legislation removed the walls protecting innocent American citizens from government surveillance and gave political bodies the authority to “monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reporting records, and track the activity of innocent Americans on the Internet.” With many Americans inflicted with a rampant fear of future terrorist attacks and a fervent animosity towards the Middle East, many citizens were happy to give up their privacy rights for the sake of “national security”.
However, times have drastically changed since the early 2000’s, and Americans are far more jaded when it comes to trusting the government and most are more scared of domestic terrorism than enemies abroad. Perhaps this explains the rising success of the security industry, as more people invest in creating safe environments around their homes and property themselves rather than depend on local government to handle crime. Indeed, a recent study from the Cato Institute reveals the stark difference between American mindsets in 2001 vs today.
When Cato Institute asked 2,000 Americans: “Would you favor or oppose the government installing surveillance cameras in every household to reduce domestic violence, abuse, and other illegal activity?”, only 14% responded with a favorable opinion. Seventy-five percent were opposed to the idea, with 68% feeling “strongly opposed” to the concept. Ten percent were neutral.
Polling data shows 75% of Americans oppose government surveillance in their homes.
On the surface, these responses are not surprising. With a waning trust in government authorities and general unease about outward surveillance, Americans simply do not want Big Brother watching their daily home activities. The interesting revelations appear when you break down the answers by age. Almost 3 out of 10 Americans below the age of 30 would actually be in favor of installing government surveillance in their homes. This favorable opinion drops steeply the older the polling sample becomes, denoting that there might be an association between the acceptance of government surveillance and age.
When examined by age, polling data shows almost a third of young Americans support government surveillance in homes.
While the study does not delve too deeply into the reasoning behind this phenomenon, perhaps some theories can be devised based on observation alone. Older generations grew up in an era where the Soviet Union was still extant, and carried fears and anxiety of an oppressive, Communist surveillance state on a regular basis. As mentioned before, while 9/11 softened the national angst of surveillance for awhile, public trust in the government certainly took a hit when it was discovered that the invasion of Iraq was based on false premises and support for the war in Afghanistan faded as that war dragged on and on with little success.
On a technological level, perhaps younger generations are simply more comfortable allowing outside eyes to view their personal activities, as young users of social media participate in sharing the mundanity of their lives on a daily basis. Once the sanctity of their privacy has been devalued, perhaps it is easier to perceive that a trade between privacy and safety is more beneficial in the long run. However, these theories do not presume that Gen-Z is more trusting of the government than other demographics. They are just as repelled by American governmental institutions as their fellow citizens.
But perhaps their willingness to sacrifice their personal freedom is an idealistic one, where they legitimately hope that government surveillance can actually make a difference in reducing domestic violence, abuse, and other crimes that can happen at home. Their young (sometimes naive) optimism overshadows their fear and anxiety of a world watched by Big Brother in the hopes that the world can be better somehow. This is certainly a valuable, if misguided, trait that younger generations tend to express.
Again, it cannot be understated that Americans overall do not support Uncle Sam poking his head into their homes. Historically, the desire to be independent and free from government authority is what has driven the American ethos (most of the time). It is merely interesting to note that there is a small, but not unnoticeable demographic of Americans that feel otherwise. As stated previously, it is not impossible for a deeply held public opinion to change suddenly and drastically. It is always easy to castigate and demean younger generations for their contrarian beliefs. But all it takes is a little push to make the minority opinion the mirror the will of the masses.