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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Think you’re being watched? Maybe you are

  • Miami Herald
  • Published Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, at 12 a.m.

I need to know how to build a bomb.

This is not, I hasten to add, for my use or, indeed, for the use of any real person. Rather, it is for Clarence and Dwayne, two hapless wannabe terrorists in a novel I’m writing.

In researching a novel, you often find yourself going places you would not ordinarily go and asking questions you would not ordinarily ask, seeking details that lend verisimilitude to the narrative. For “Before I Forget,” I sat in on an Alzheimer’s support group. For “Freeman,” I visited a horse farm catering to disabled riders.

For “Grant Park,” I’m trying to figure out enough of fertilizer bomb mechanics to describe what such a device looks like and give my characters some realistic stuff to do as they discuss their nefarious plot.

The point is, I know squat about bomb building. Ordinarily, that would be no problem. Helping writers do their research is the whole reason Al Gore invented the Internet.

But an odd thing happened when I went online recently: I found myself hesitating. I wondered what secret watch list this would put me on. I tried to guess how long it would take after I typed “bomb building” into Google before men in FBI jackets started banging at my door.

It didn’t help that the massive data dump by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden continues to be Topic A in America. Pass lightly over the news that’s getting most of the attention, allegations that the NSA eavesdrops on the electronic communications of our nation’s allies. For all the indignation France, Germany and other allies expressed at the news, it strains credulity to believe they aren’t watching us every bit as closely as we do them.

No, the headline here is the degree to which our spies are spying on us. The Washington Post reports that the NSA “has secretly broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world,” enabling it to collect data from hundreds of millions of people internationally – and here at home. This, according to Snowden’s documents and Post reporting.

And here’s the thing: The NSA already has a process allowing it to access user accounts. But despite having a key to the front door, it has taken a crowbar to the back.

In a statement, the spy agency swears it uses its powers only for good, to spy on foreign targets. You may choose to be assuaged by that if you wish. Me, I’m trying to remember all the Google and Yahoo searches I have conducted in the past year. And wondering if Clarence and Dwayne can be convincing terrorists if I arm them with rocks. And recalling how sanguine some of us were when the Patriot Act was passed and secret no-fly lists were compiled and the feds started snooping through library records. And marveling at how much George Orwell got right in “1984.” And mourning the Fourth Amendment. And lamenting how readily a frightened people will give up their freedoms for the illusion – and delusion – of security.

I’m reminded of a lyric Michael Jackson sang in 1984: “I always feel like somebody’s watching me.” The song was a comic take on one man’s overwrought fear of prying eyes. But what sounded like paranoia then feels like prescience now.

Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, appears in Opinion on Mondays.

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