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Sunday, Aug 31, 2014
Commentary

Think you’re being watched? Maybe you are

Published:

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. Failing that, I’ll have to fake it with passages like the following:

“Our nefarious plot is really going well,” said Clarence as he connected the frammistat to the hornuculator.

“Yes,” said Dwayne as he tested the level of tetratrygliceryde in the doohickey tanks, “it is really fun to be nefarious and have a plot.”

The point is, I know squat about bomb building. Ordinarily, that’d 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 last week: 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. Or maybe they’d forgo such formalities and simply rappel down from helicopters and come in through the windows.

It didn’t help that last week saw the massive data dump by NSA leaker Edward Snowden continue to be Topic A in America. Pass lightly over the news that’s getting most of the attention, allegations that the National Security Agency 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 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.

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, i.e., to spy on foreign targets. You may choose to be assuaged by that if you wish. Me, I’m 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.

I’d have more to say, but I can hardly think with that helicopter hovering so low. Hey, look, the door is opening.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

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