Letter to a spook: But you don’t know me

Sam Smith

I don’t know for sure that you’re out there at all, but from what I read and hear there’s a pretty good chance, so I thought I would pass this along.

You may be tapping my phone, scanning my e-mails and collating my other electronic ephemera, but you don’t know me.

Any writer can tell you this: you don’t reveal character or describe an individual by just dumpster diving for data. Your efforts are not only intrusive, they’re ineffective as well.

An individual is a product of experiences, some of which – though influential – may have been lost to memory, some of which – though searing – may never be mentioned again, and some of which – though exhilarating – may lack the words to describe them.

You are eavesdropping only on my front to the world. If I am down, I try not to bring my friends down with me. If I am mad about some public act, I try not to bore my friends too much about it. If I am mad about some private act, I try for the calm and restraint I do not feel. If I am really happy, I often lack the words to express it well. And if I have been given something, I try for gratitude even though I have no idea what to do with the damn thing.

You do not know my dreams, my fears, my stupid excesses of doubt, or how I alternately rebel against, resent or am resigned to the entropy of aging. You do not know how sad I am about the world that the people you work for will leave my children and their children. You do not know that I do not like vinegar, have never read Joyce’s “Ulysses,” sometimes fall asleep while waiting my turn in a board game, never watch football, or that two of my uncles were killed in wartime service to our country and another never smiled from the day of his return from the front to the day he committed suicide. You do not know that my utopia would have, above all, no need for dentists as well as using “This Land is My Land” as our national anthem.

If you were to really know me, you would need to hear hundreds of stories, visit hundreds of places and meet hundreds of people. Only a few of them are listed on my credit cards.

But you are not only misinformed. You are also a thief. You are stealing my privacy, my civil liberties, my peace of mind and the incalculable pleasure of not having to worry about what someone else is doing to you. You are also a vandal. You are throwing rocks at the Constitution, scrawling graffiti on our national conscience, wrecking our reputation and scratching the face of America.

And still you do not know me.

I don’t know you either but I suspect you are earnest and were attracted to your dubious trade by its romantic and macho aura, recruited by the excitement of being a spy. Deceived by your employers, however, you have ended up just another technician in the dismantling of the First American Republic.

I believe you sincerely believe the contrary but I wonder about some things. For example, how many courses in American history did you take before embarking on this task? Did you ever read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography? Do you know who Thomas Paine was? What do you think Patrick Henry meant when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death?” Would you have tapped his phone, too?

And what about those who rebelled against the law to win rights for slaves, for women, for workers? Many of them broke the law. Were they bad Americans because they sought to become full Americans?

Do you know what the Palmer raids were? Do know why good Americans stood up to Joseph McCarthy? What did Woodrow Wilson mean when he told a group of new citizens “You have just taken an oath of allegiance to the United States. Of allegiance to whom? Of allegiance to no one, unless it be God. Certainly not of allegiance to those who temporarily represent this great government. You have taken an oath of allegiance to a great ideal, to a great body of principles, to a great hope of the human race.” What are some of those principles? Did Wilson know what he was talking about or should he have been under surveillance, too?

If you have a hard time with these questions, maybe you’re in the wrong business. You’re judging people without knowing the rules of the game. You’re determining who is a good American without knowing what that means. You’re mistaking loyalty to the ambitions of a particular set of politicians at a particular moment as loyalty to a country, its land and its people.

But even though you are a thief and a vandal, and even though I suspect you don’t know enough about America to judge me fairly, I’ll make a deal with you.

You come out of your hole long enough to meet me someplace over a drink or over dinner. I’ll tell you my stories and you tell me yours. No interrogation, no tape recorder, no probing into each other’s private business. Just two Americans sitting and talking about what it means to them to be an American.

If you don’t take this deal, I’ll think of you not only as thief and vandal but as a coward as well.

If you do take this deal, you’ll probably discover that we’re both pretty good Americans, but that you’ve been wasting your time, and that you may even want to find a new job.

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