A lesson from author: Who watches the watchers?

Farm Forum

I don’t think I’ll ever find a fantasy writer I like better than J.R.R. Tolkien but, like many Tolkien fans, I find Terry Pratchett’s books to be almost as addictive: Books one can read over and over without ever tiring of them.

Like Tolkien, Pratchett has a wonderful talent for creating a believable alternative world, populating it with fascinating characters and weaving together their stories into an unforgettable tale. And like Tolkien, Pratchett is a language craftsman, a master at finding clever ways of turning a phrase. His “Discworld” novels include plenty of humor (Pratchett has a much sharper satirical bent than Tolkien) and, perhaps more important, some deep insights into individual and societal behavior.

In “Night Watch,” my favorite of the Discworld books, Pratchett describes a ruthless government security agency, “the Unmentionables.” He describes them as both loving and fearing paperwork: generating plenty of it, but never wanting to appear in other people’s paperwork.

Information, of course, is the life-blood of bureaucracy and, when bureaucratic systems function properly, data-gathering leads to better and more efficient policies and procedures. But the bureaucratic quest for more and more information can metastasize into something dangerous and (sometimes) downright deadly.

So where does one draw the line? When does government information-gathering go too far? Pratchett’s description of the “Unmentionables” suggests a basic rule: Whenever a government agency makes scrutiny of its own actions hard or impossible and, especially, when it clearly fears such scrutiny, odds are that it has gone too far in its own data-gathering.

The National Security Agency wants access to your Internet search records, your Facebook posts and your email. Just “metadata” they’re after, they tell us. No harm, no foul. But the over-the-top reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelations suggests fear: They’ve been caught doing what they shouldn’t be doing. And when we hear that CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson’s computer has been hacked — possibly because of her investigations into the Benghazi scandal — it’s hard to believe the data-gathering is as restricted as government officials claim.

In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, the “national security” justification made Americans willing to cut government agencies some slack on privacy issues. But it’s not just in the national security arena that government bureaucrats insist on more and more information, while becoming increasingly opaque about their own operations. The education bureaucrats want data, data, and more data. But just try to find out exactly how taxpayer education dollars are being spent. The health care bureaucrats are turning physicians into paper-pushers in an effort to make them “accountable.” But who is monitoring the bureaucrats themselves?

It’s a theme Pratchett turns to often. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”: Who watches the watchers? It’s not an easy question, but perhaps it’s easier to answer if one keeps in mind another Latin aphorism, “scientia potentia est”: knowledge is power. Increasing government surveillance necessarily means increasing government power, and the end result will be tyranny unless there is a balancing power: our knowledge of exactly what our government agencies are doing.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at NSU. He can be reached at The views are his and do not represent NSU.