How Vital Is Privacy to the Post-Sept. 11 American?

A National Security Agency program to collect the phone records of millions of Americans has many Capitol Hill lawmakers calling for an investigation. But a recent Washington Post poll suggests that many citizens approve of the data-collection effort. Reporter Alix Spiegel heads to the National Mall in Washington to ask Americans why they aren't more troubled by the government program.

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And as Juan mentioned, pollsters were dispatched to take the temperature of the American public about the NSA phone records issue. So how important is privacy to the average person?

Reporter Alix Spiegel headed to the National Mall in downtown Washington, D.C., to find out.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

I found Bob Filinard(ph) walking the path beside the Vietnam Memorial, a tall, thin figure smoking a cigarette. When I introduced my topic, he pumped his fist in the air and told me that the government did, quote, "Just the right thing." The terrorists wanted to destroy us, he explained. It was as simple as that.

Mr. BOB FILINARD (Visitor, Vietnam Memorial): I'd rather be alive and have somebody know who I call than be dead.

SPIEGEL: How do you feel about privacy in general? Do you feel like it's an important value?

Mr. FILINARD: No, I don't.

SPIEGEL: Filinard was very clear on this point. He didn't care if the government looked through his email or listened to his phone calls. He merely shrugged when I asked how he would feel if they searched his home without a warrant.

SPIEGEL: So why do you think some people think that privacy is so important?

Mr. FILINARD: Because they have something to hide.

SPIEGEL: I heard this idea echoed over and over during my day on the Mall. It was only the guilty who had reason to fear. The innocent could sleep easy.

Mr. FILINARD: There's nothing that I say that's going to be come back to me and hurt me at a later time in my life.

Unidentified Woman: If you're not hiding anything, there's no - there shouldn't be a problem with it.

SPIEGEL: It was as if concern for privacy was a new kind of litmus test, a way to separate the good from the bad in a post-9/11 world. In fact, one man, Dave Stone, a Vietnam vet with an American flag on his lapel, saw the abandonment of privacy as a kind of patriotic sacrifice, one of those uncomfortable adaptations that are sometimes required in the heat of conflict.

Mr. DAVE STONE (Vietnam Veteran): Look at World War II. Everybody was on rations. Nobody cried about it. You had gas stamps, food stamps. I'm an old soldier. I'm a warrior, and we fight. And if it takes a little bit of - loosing a little bit of your privacy, then that's what it takes.

SPIEGEL: And Stone wasn't the only who felt the threat of terrorism so intensely that he was ready to compromise rights. Jim Pardikes(ph) told me that it made him feel better to know that the government was searching phone records. It was just the way it had to be right now.

Mr. JIM PARDIKES (Visitor, National Mall): Some of our freedoms that we have had we're going to unfortunately have to lose some of them in order to catch the bad guys.

SPIEGEL: During my day on the Mall, I spoke with 15 people. Only two registered a strong objection to the NSA program on privacy grounds. Most, like Dave Stone and Jim Pardikes, seemed ready and willing to make compromises, to face what they saw as uncomfortable realities. In the Sophie's Choice between security and privacy, security was the clear winner, and most seemed to feel that it was an easy sacrifice to make.

The night after I went to the Mall, I stopped by a bookstore. In browsing the stacks, I found a book by the legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen called The Unwanted Gaze. In it, he talks about a concept in Jewish called hezzek re'iyyah, which can be translated as the injury caused by seeing.

Basically, the idea is that when people are constantly watched, it leads them to have more constricted lives. But if there is no place on this earth where people can let their hair down, a back stage where they can indulge their eccentricity, absurdity, even stupidity, then things like individuality, creativity and even love suffer. The act of being watched changes us, inhibits us, makes us in some ways less willing to be human.

But this is a very abstract notion, soft and difficult to measure. Particularly in the face of a threat like terrorism, a threat which propels people like Bob Filinard to draw clear and certain lines.

Mr. FILINARD: Like I said, I have nothing to hide. The majority of the American people have nothing to hide. And those that do have something to hide should be found out, and get what they have coming to them.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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