The United Nations — the topic of this month’s Global Minnesota Great Decisions dialogue — began its annual General Assembly on Tuesday, and next week world leaders will take to the iconic U.N. dais to press their perspectives on the spiraling crises crossing countries and even continents.
Accordingly, a raft of resolutions on human rights, justice and international law, disarmament, the transnational challenges of drugs, crime and terrorism, and in particular “maintenance of international peace and security” are slated.
But not on the roster are surveillance issues. There are some procedural and especially diplomatic dynamics behind this dearth. But the U.N. has previously addressed the issue. Another factor might be that some societies reeling from extremism are increasingly prioritizing security over privacy.
That seems to be the case here at home, according to a new Pew Research Center poll coinciding with last Sunday’s 15th anniversary of 9/11. A 14-year high of 40 percent believe that “the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the United States is greater than at the time of the 9/11 attacks.” And half that say their biggest concern about anti-terrorism policies is “they have not gone far enough to protect the country” tops the third who say their bigger concern is that those policies have “gone too far in restricting civil liberties.”
“Pew surveys since 9/11 show how fluid American attitudes are depending on the circumstances of the moment,” said Lee Rainie, a research director at Pew. “Privacy is one of those issues where context is everything.”
Context closely hews to news narratives of global extremism and the 2016 campaign. Whether it’s also impacted by pop culture will be tested with Friday’s premiere of “Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s take on the rogue NSA contractor who revealed how extensive surveillance practices were.
As cinema, “Snowden” is compelling, if polemical, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt effectively channeling Snowden’s change from a gung-ho Army volunteer to a conscience-stricken contractor willing to risk all in order to expose opaque NSA surveillance practices.
Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson and Melissa Leo are also effective in portraying journalists trusted with the explosive story. But the three — reporters Glenn Greenwald (played by Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Wilkinson), as well as filmmaker Laura Poitras (Leo), are best seen as themselves in “Citizenfour,” Poitras’ riveting 2014 Oscar-winning documentary that dramatically captured Snowden holed up in a Hong Kong hotel as he revealed the secret surveillance protocols.
But both “Citizenfour” and “Snowden” are timely reminders of the indispensability of news professionals just days after Gallup reported that “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.”
“When you are thinking of something like the gigantic data dumps that Snowden has done and WikiLeaks continues to do, it becomes more important to have the people who are professionally trained to put it into context,” said Giovanna Dell’Orto, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Beyond a boost for journalists, Snowden himself most likely hopes “Snowden” puts him a new light, too, as he pushes for a presidential pardon. Other prominent pardon backers include leaders from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International who co-authored a “Pardon Edward Snowden” commentary in Thursday’s New York Times.
That’s not likely, considering consistent comments on Snowden from President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Also uncertain is whether “Snowden” shines light anew on the NSA surveillance issue, as the actual Snowden revelations did in 2013, however briefly. Back then the furor sparked 47 percent to say anti-terror programs had gone too far, compared with the 35 percent who said not far enough.
Snowden’s revelations also had global impact. But the issue seems to have receded. “Time has a way of diminishing people’s concerns, and I think that many governments of the world that were expressing concern at the time were expressing it in large measure because of public opinion,” said Eric Schwartz, dean of the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Scwhartz added that while surveillance issues are still salient, terrorism may mean some citizens may be reprioritizing concerns.
Rhetoric regarding surveillance, and maybe even Snowden, may indeed be heard at the U.N. next week. But more likely, leaders will focus on responding to their nations’ anxiety about the nihilistic terrorism tearing apart societies worldwide.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.