In a little corner of Arlington, the county where Hillary Clinton and John McCain have established their national headquarters, lives your correspondent, who’s been affected by this ‘war on terror’ business is a most peculiar way.
About a year ago, a long time conversation I had been having with an online friend in The Netherlands suddenly ceased.
Jan, inexplicably, stopped responding to my e-mails. He and I had met in an international discussion group (www.politalk.com) — which began around the time our President ordered the invasion of Iraq — that featured ongoing observations on the state of the world and international politics.
Jan’s departure from my inbox, some five years later, coincided with the New York Times’ report that our government has been engaged in a massive, secretive spying effort on U.S. citizens.
I kept writing, and no word from Jan; a husband, father and grandfather my age with similar political views. I did not know his home address, so I could not send him a letter. I did not know his phone number, so I could not call.
What on Earth was going on? Has my friend been offended by me? Did this have anything to do with the National Security Agency and its unchecked wiretapping and e-mail intercepts, about which we’d just learned?
Finally Jan sent an e-mail note. “Why haven’t I heard from you?” he asked. He told me of several e-mails he’d written to me and asked me to please respond, wondering why I would suddenly stop our five-year long Internet conversation.
So, I responded…. and heard nothing in reply. Some weeks later Jan e-mailed again, “Why haven’t you written?”
The truth was, I had… several times.
Something fishy was going on, and I was beginning to have a tiny bit of unease about what my government might be doing to me.
Was I being tagged a spy? Would I get a knock on the door at three in the morning and be hauled away in a black SUV?
Finally, Jan sent me a letter, with his address and phone number on it. I called right away and told him of my suspicions and concerns. Would I become one of those citizens who’ve been swept away in the name of security and ‘terrorism,’ locked in a secret cell with no contact to anyone and no explanation of my disappearance?
Jan said he would investigate with his Internet service provider to see if their system might be blocking my e-mails. Their answer was that perhaps my e-mails were being identified as ‘spam’ and filtered out of their system, in which case I would have received an e-mail message from them, telling me that my message had been blocked.
The problem was, I never received any such e-mail notifications.
Then, about a month or so later, after writing another missive to Jan, I finally heard back: he had received the latest message from me; everything seemed to be working again, and we continued our political discussions.
I somewhat laughingly suggested to Jan that I might end up in jail for what I’d been writing about our government and its misdirected and harmful policies, which have undermined our standing in the world and brought untold numbers of deaths.
He assured me it must have been the spam blocker. Still, I felt unnerved: why was this happening to me? Why, after more than ten years of Internet e-mailing, were my political expressions to a citizen of another nation interrupted?
“We want to know who is talking to Osama bin Laden,” our Decider assured us, when his spying operation was exposed. But stories began to leak about the National Security Agency’s massive data mining, which funneled all of a major carrier’s voice and electronic communications traffic to a secret, no-access room set up in the carrier’s main switching center.
Our government was and is listening to our calls, possibly all of our calls and e-mails. Was I a target? I have and continue to have international discussions. We had just called our cousin Andre in France to express sorrow over the loss of his wife. I wrote e-mail notes of concern to our Luxembourg cousin Martine, who has suddenly developed cancer.
I’ve never been shy about expressing my opinions over the way this president has undermined our own democracy, brought death to soldiers and citizens for his political gain, and now is known to have approved the torture of other human beings.
Have my conversations, starting with Jan and now, possibly, with like-minded friends and family, brought me into the NSA spying cauldron? Am I too critical of a government that abhors criticism, likening it to treason?
We soon will begin the process of picking a new person to lead this country. How many of us will be distracted by anger over immigrants, abortion or gay people, when our very future as a democracy seems to be at stake?
I pray for peace every day. I wonder, are my thoughts intercepted, too?
Nick Penning (www.nickpenning.com) is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.