Computers, Privacy & the Constitution


-- By MattConroy - 1 Jun 2018

In 2015, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds became the fifth American to be named Righteous Among the Nations. Captured by the Wehrmacht on December 19, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, he was sent to the Stalag IX-B POW Camp. In January of 1945 he was transferred to Stalag IX-A where, as the senior non-commissioned officer from the United States, he became responsible for 1,275 American prisoners of war. Upon arrival at the camp, the camp commander ordered him to have all of the Jewish-American prisoners present themselves outside of their barracks at dawn. In response, Master Sergeant Edmonds did the only thing possible which was to order every single American to assemble instead. With a gun to his head, he told the Nazi commandant that “We are all Jews here” and refused to identify who they were. With this act of courage, he saved the lives of over 200 Jewish servicemen.

In law school we talk about a constitution as a bunch of clauses that define what the government can and cannot do. But a constitution is not just law, it is the set of principles that form a people. This can to some extent be codified, but if it does not resonate on a deeper level then the document is not worth the paper it is printed on. A right to assembly enshrined in an Amendment to the Constitution does not really have intrinsic meaning. A story showing what it means for the people of a nation to stand together against evil --- even in the face of death --- gives that right life. It tells our children not just that courage exists, but that we are courageous.


The day before Master Sergeant Edmonds was captured by the Nazis, the United States Supreme Court decided Korematsu v. United States. Writing for a 6-3 majority, Justice Black held that holding Japanese-Americans in concentration camps was constitutional. Being American necessitates coming to terms with a racist past. It means coming to terms with a past where as a people we often fell woefully short of the ideals we profess to have.

We need to understand why we fall short because it helps us understand why we keep falling. Korematsu at its core is a case about fear. It is a case of deferring our constitutional principles to the whims of the military. Gibbon in Volume 1 of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wrote that “the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, renders them very unfit guardians of a legal, or even a civil, constitution. Justice, humanity, or political wisdom are qualities they are too little acquainted with in themselves, to appreciate them in others.” The irony of course is that Edmonds was a soldier. But this illustrates that it is possible for an individual to rise above what is expected and do the right thing. Edmonds was an exceptional individual, but that does not mean that as a society we cannot decide to also be exceptional. When deciding upon a constitution, society needs to decide which historical artifacts are constitutional and which are merely things to be remembered. This is necessary to differentiate between who we are and who we were. But it needs to know and accept both.

Quantum and Computers

The Great Patriotic War forces Viktor Shtrum of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate to reckon with the fact that he is a Jew. As a scientist, he realizes that there is a terrible similarity between the principles of Fascism and those of his beloved physics. He says that “Fascism has rejected … the concept of a ‘man’ and operates only with vast aggregates. Contemporary physics speaks of the greater or lesser probability of occurrences within this or that aggregate of individual particles. And are not the terrible mechanics of Fascism founded on the principle of quantum politics, of political probability?” For the 20th century, this is the statement of a physicist. For the 21st century, it is disturbingly close to the statement of a computer scientist.

But in the next moment, with hope and defiance against his world, Shtrum declares, “But no! No! And again no! Fascism will perish for the very reason that it has applied to man the laws applicable to atoms and cobblestones!” This is not a statement of objective truth. It is a statement of yearning for a different, contingent future. But it is also not a statement of winning a war and destroying those who believe in Fascism. Because “if man, man who is endowed with reason and kindness, should conquer, then Fascism must perish, and those who have submitted to it will once again become people.” It is reason and kindness that needs to win this sort of battle if it is going to be worth winning at all. It seems sort of insane to argue that a fictional Russian story should be a constitutional piece of America. But maybe it is necessary in the 21st century to no longer find such a notion to be insane. We could decide that we have a right to be governed by reason and kindness, not probability. And it could be in our internal constitution that it does not matter if that idea came from a Russian.

Returning one last time to Master Sergeant Edmonds, it seems important to note that following the war, he went back to Tennessee and told nobody his story. The only reason we know it happened is because he wrote it down in a diary which his son acquired after his death, but not after everyone who could corroborate it passed away. Some stories that need to be told to posterity cannot be uttered in public. He probably knew that his wife and son would read it eventually. But if the only way he could write a diary was using Facebook or while being watched by the NSA then he would never have written it down at all.

I don't see how to improve this draft. It's fascinating and valuable for you to have written.


Webs Webs

r4 - 11 Jun 2018 - 02:18:45 - MattConroy
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