The truth is we have created a police state in which we are both the persecutors and the victims. The most modern of technologies has ushered in the end of the modern era by destroying privacy and returning us to a primitive age of odium. Urban mobility and immigrant aspirations depended on a high degree of anonymity that allowed people to restart and self-invent, to leave behind the burdens of class, sect, and inherited identity. Now, even family sins are back in vogue. The media routinely hounds relatives of scandal subjects. This is what police states do. With the Internet, future generations will curse their family luck.
Open societies are slowly committing suicide by digitally amplified rumor and innuendo. You do not see totalitarian leaders destroyed by prurience. But it won’t be long before they meddle in our politics with threats of scandal. Twitter users don’t, on the whole, care about checking sources. With our survival at stake, it’s time to impose some road rules for modern privacy if only by countering shame with decency. We should all begin by purging ourselves of the “guilty pleasure” of gossip as entertainment that, in truth, is neither victimless nor private. Anyone publicly exposing or trading in confidential emails—or rumor through social media—should be identified and openly vilified, and that includes law enforcement agencies. Once a scandal erupts, its origins quickly get forgotten. No one seems bothered by how or why the FBI probe into Petraeus’s emails became public—who leaked their content and by what authority. He was in charge of defending our freedoms against enemies. When Taliban leaders heard of his downfall they laughed out loud.