In retrospect, we all should have seen it coming.
We should have been able to predict the arc of the responses to WikiLeaks' massive dump of diplomatic cables.
There was outrage and invective. Julian Assange was declared a public enemy. Equal to Osama bin Laden. The leaks were putting American lives in danger. American interests had been compromised.
That part was predictable and, frankly, about as new, striking and remarkable as the leaks themselves. Because let's face it, there really wasn't much that was truly earth-shattering in the leaks. And there wasn't anything truly useful in the outrage.
But then things took a turn for the worse. For the seriously dangerous.
It was reported that students at an international relations program at one of America's most prestigious universities were warned against visiting the WikiLeaks site or reading the leaked cables--for fear that it would jeopardize their future employment with the U.S. State Department.
Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal cut off WikiLeaks' account--refusing them banking services for reasons never quite made clear.
There were reports that lawyers in the Justice Department were examining ways to retrofit U.S. laws designed to punish spying to fit the WikiLeaks case and attempt to apply statutes with no historical relevance to this situation.
All of which makes the WikiLeaks situation less about the leaks themselves--because the leaks, frankly, don't really add up to much.
And it's not even about Julian Assange--who seems to aspire to the role of martyr and to hunger for the opportunity to be a media star over-hyping the importance of the material he's dispensed.
What WikiLeaks is about is America's character in the balance.
It's a movie we've seen before.
In the 1950s, with a scary enemy outside our gates, the growing fear of American global vulnerability, and the terrible gnawing sensation that things at home weren't going right, the U.S. allowed itself to get caught up in a paranoid nightmare. If there were enemies outside our gates, surely there were agents within!
And sure enough, there were.
Not as many as the fear-mongers wanted to pretend were there. But enough to make the claims credible.
Fear gave way to more fear--legitimate news sources censored themselves, for fear that they'd be censored even more harshly if they didn't "comply" with the dominate mood. People who objected to the loss of freedom (in the name of protecting freedom, which is how we in the U.S. always justify these kinds of irrational acts) found themselves black-listed, out of work, on the outside looking in.
As others have noted in the run-up to the November elections, there is a deep strain of the paranoid style in American politics.
And in the American public psyche.
So far, WikiLeaks is a Rorschach test of how far America has traveled down the road to national paranoia. If we were being totally honest about the leaks themselves, we'd conclude that they are almost laughably uninformative:
The U.S. doesn't trust Putin.
There are back-deals going on in the Middle East, with Israel negotiating with nations that publicly wish it ill and privately hope it will stay strong militarily (didn't anybody else see the film "Charlie Wilson's War"?).
American ambassadors are known to say one thing in public and something different in private.
We don't really like or trust the leaders in Afghanistan.
It's all pretty thin gruel.
Except the response is treating it like we need to go back to the 1950s and rediscover our inner Red Scare.
Now it's not the Soviet Union--it's China. They're big and growing and dangerous and maybe they'll overtake us.
It's not nuclear weapons--it's global economics. And we're slipping behind as we lose our competitive capabilities.
Our economy is in the doldrums--unemployment refuses to budge, companies won't hire, the world is not a friendly place.
It must be somebody's fault.
There must be people who need to be punished. There must be traitors in our midst.
How do you treat paranoia?
By having the good sense and strength of purpose to go back to first principles.
We need more good, smart, tough reporting, not less.
We need more digging into the truth of America's strengths and failings, not less.
We need to focus on what needs fixing and how to fix it--and not to fall prey to mindless fear-mongering.
What we need is for the journalists and writers, commentators and opinion-makers who got scooped by WikiLeaks to redouble their efforts at finding out what's really going on in the world, and bring that news to the American public.
The best reaction to leaks, if they really make Americans uncomfortable, is more solid journalism. We need more digging, not more cover-ups.
All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb