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Albert Einstein on America Since 9/11

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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October 7, 2013

I recently came across the following quote from Albert Einstein which, if you just sub out “Communism” and replace it with “terrorism,” pretty much nails our current situation:

America is incomparably less endangered by its own Communists than by the hysterical hunt for the few Communists there are here.

Nothing really to add to that. But while we’re quoting Einstein, there’s another one that also seems pertinent to our current situation:

The fear of Communism has led to practices which have become incomprehensible to the rest of civilized mankind and exposed our country to ridicule.

Not only do torture and rendition and perhaps our overall devotion to novel, high-tech security policies (such as fingerprinting foreign visitors and our headlong embrace of body scanners) leap to mind here, but also NSA spying. While espionage has always taken place and some portion of the international condemnation of the NSA’s programs is no doubt made up of cynical gamesmanship, the scale and scope of the NSA’s spying so far exceeds any kind of spying that has ever been done that I suspect much global shock is genuine.

More from Einstein:

Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem… to characterize our age.

That’s a pretty good summation of what the NSA is up to. While perfecting its means of spying on everybody, it seems to have forgotten what its ultimate goal is: the protection of democracy.

A note on these quotes: the internet and even published works are awash with fake Einstein quotations. As one blogger points out, Einstein “has become synonymous with genius and wisdom,” so attaching his name to a quote means it “must be wise indeed.” In fact while poking around I came across several other pithy quotes attributed to him that could also serve as commentary on our security policies, which while widely cited I could not confirm. For example, “Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.” But the above are genuine Einstein. The first quote above can be found here in an academic compilation of Einstein’s papers published by Princeton University Press, and the second here, and the third in this book of essays by the great physicist. With these quotes, at least, Einstein was wise indeed.

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