I don't normally comment on the issues of the day, but everyone has a breaking point, and this is mine. I don't want to wait until it's too late to say something, and I'm far from the only one who feels this way. You know things are getting bad when even sensible business people and cynical politicians decide that they need to be on the right side of history, no matter the cost.
It’s not often that you read something written by the CEO of a major corporation that took real courage to write. Not the sort of courage you get talked into by a PR consultant who says you need to look tough. Real courage, in the face of real danger.
America has done good things in the world. It has fought just wars and it has sheltered those no one else would. America rebuilt a shattered Europe and elected a black man president. These are not small things. But neither are they a guarantee or a moral blank check.
I believe in the essential goodness of people. I believe that very few people get up in the morning wishing to make the world worse. But history tells us that good people, solid citizens, and well-meaning leaders can take their countries to the depths of hell in a frighteningly short time.
It has happened before. It will happen again. And it can happen here.
America has always been at its best when we have been courageous, not when we have cowered in fear. And let’s make no mistake about it: When a country commits outrageous, population-wide violations of long-held rights and freedoms—in response to attacks by individuals and small armed groups that pose no threat to the nation as a whole—that country is acting out of blind fear.
It is beneath the dignity of the great country I live in to act this way.
The FBI, for reasons that it no doubt considers to be noble and necessary, has recently tried to play to our darkest fears. In the Bureau’s zeal to prosecute a criminal case, a murderous rampage, it is telling us that we are not safe in our homes if we do not give it the power to walk unseen into those homes and watch over us.
In the case of the San Bernardino iPhone, the FBI is asking for the power to, at any time and without our knowledge, place listening devices and cameras on our bedside tables, in our back pockets, in our children’s bedrooms, and yes, in our bathrooms.
Of course they don’t put it quite that way, but no one should be under any illusions on this subject. If the FBI is permitted to compel Apple to create the backdoor they are asking for in this case, they will ask for it again, and they will ask for more and more powerful access, for less and less serious crimes.
If they can ask Apple to disable the password protections on an iPhone, they can ask Apple to turn on the microphone or the camera. On any iPhone, anywhere, in any home in this country. And you would never know.
Some years ago one could have argued that there would be restraint in the use of such powers. But no one can seriously make that case anymore. We all know they would do that sort of thing if they could, because we’ve all read of too many cases where they have.
Once the tool exists, it will be abused. I really wish I could say otherwise. I wish I lived in a country where law enforcement acted with the square-jawed nobility of a comic book FBI agent. I used to think I did live in such a country, but in recent years I have been forced to realize that I don’t. I think that, in your heart, you know it too.
And if you happen to like the party in power today, just remember, every tool you give them is inherited by the next guy. Think of the worst possible outcome of the next election, the worst new president, the worst new congress you can imagine (whichever one that might be for you). Do you want those people to have the power to look and listen to anyone they please, anytime, anywhere? To search at will through recordings of our most personal moments? To use a rubber stamp warrant to gather dirt on someone who insulted them? To review the browsing history of anyone who annoys them publicly enough?
Fear is the tool of choice for bringing a free people under the yoke. Fear is the great equalizer between the unlimited power of the people to act in their own interest, and the pitiful weakness of a would-be despot.
Do not give these people the tools that only fear can buy them.
The work of courage belongs to everyone. We each have a role to play in our own corner of the world. Right now there is only one thing standing in the way of a nightmare coming true in the domain of the iPhone. That one thing is the good word of Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple Computer. And if that doesn’t scare the living daylights out of you, I don’t know what would.
I do business with Apple. I like Apple. I liked Steve Jobs. I don’t know this man Tim Cook, but I respect his courage in standing up to a bully government. His words set an example, and for that we all owe him a debt. I think it's a debt that is best paid forward.
We should all look to our own lives and ask, against what injustice, great or small, am I the last defense? What requires my courage? When they come knocking, whose example will I follow?