The Paranoia Paradox: Sometimes They Actually Are Out To Get Us
The debate over Joe McCarthy just won’t die. The conventional narrative is that he was unmitigated evil, a nasty label to be pasted on political opponents to tarnish them beyond repair. The revisionist narrative, emerging right on cue 60 years later, is the McCarthy was an unsung hero, the only person who truly understood the threat America was under during the early years of the Cold War.
As seems to be the case with all things political, neither purist stream has its monopoly on truth. But both have important elements of it.
Joe McCarthy was a bad person. He was a drunk, he was abusive, he was careless and irresponsible with grave accusations. But the threat he tried to address (or exploit) was more real than many of McCarthy’s loudest critics are willing to admit. The Soviet Union actually was targeting U.S. government institutions with espionage and subversion. The Soviet Union actually did seek to dominate much of the world and it was willing to use murderous force to pursue that goal. And Communist spies actually did try to infiltrate and influence important American cultural and intellectual centers, most successfully higher education (where their influence continues to grow to this day, insulated away from the corrective pressures of the real world).
A similar paradox infects our current national security environment, with postmodern avatars of McCarthy on both sides. One one side, we have the U.S. government and its military apparatus represented by drone strikes and its intelligence apparatus represented by the NSA. They are sometimes irresponsible in how they execute their mission, but they face a very grave threat, the nature of which many of their critics willingly blind themselves to.
On the other side, we have Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. Both are, like McCarthy, seemingly bad people, seemingly obsessed with their own self-aggrandizement, grossly irresponsible in their tactics, delusional in their choice of allies, and totally unaccountable to anyone at the same time they preach self-righteously about ensuring accountability for everyone. But they too face a legitimate enemy — the unchecked growth of a technological-military-intelligence superstructure that is opaque, unaccountable, and grossly vulnerable to misuse.
National security policy in the postmodern age is Greek tragedy; there are no heroes. Only McCarthys.