Recent revelations of the National Security Agency’s intrusive surveillance have provoked many nervous glances over the shoulder from Americans concerned to preserve individual civil liberties. Timothy George pointed out today that the news, coming as it does in the wake of the IRS scandal, has reanimated fears of an intrusive Total State unwilling to leave anything but naked power between itself and its atomized citizens. The uneasy debates provoked are in many ways reminiscent of the characteristic liberal, conservative, and libertarian fault lines that emerged over the Patriot Act of 2001.
As Philip Jenkins reminds us, tradeoffs between security and liberty are not new. G.K. Chesterton wrote a wonderful little adventure story, The Man Who Was Thursday, in 1908, years before John Buchan supposedly invented the espionage story with The Thirty-Nine Steps. This harrowing and heroic tale feels disturbingly familiar in an age of constant terrorist threat. Jenkins summarizes:
The book describes a Europe under threat from terrorists, from anarchists, dynamiters and assassins. To meet the threat, London’s Metropolitan Police have formed an elite anti-anarchist squad, tasked to infiltrate the enemy. Following up a chance conversation, undercover detective Gabriel Syme attends a meeting of the General Council of the Anarchists of Europe, and is even elected to a vacancy in their leadership. This tight group has seven leaders, each of whom takes his codename from a day of the week. The mysterious overall boss is Sunday. Syme himself becomes Thursday.
Syme seems to have pulled off a major coup in the war against terror. But matters become more complicated, when he finds that he is not the only police infiltrator in the anarchist leadership. He discovers first another police spy, then another… could all the anarchist leaders really be detectives, or are all the detectives really anarchists? And who on earth is Sunday? Or is he not of this earth? As the detectives hunt the terrorists, and are themselves hunted, Chesterton creates a masterpiece of paranoia.
The years immediately before World War I were a time of anarchist atrocities across Europe, and security forces then as now stooped to questionable measures to resist the threat. As in The Man Who Was Thursday, a morally murky world of betrayals and counter-betrayals confronts governments with distasteful questions:
If a bomb has been planted or a soldier murdered in the streets, then police agencies have failed in their duty, and should have intervened earlier. But does that mean that they should arrest or try someone for thoughts and writings that might someday lead to committing such actions? Or at least, should they keep potential subversives under surveillance?
Chesterton, thankfully, does not leave his readers trapped in a cycle of creating monsters to fight monsters, a lá Pacific Rim. His conclusion is a prophetic vision of a world redeemed in Sabbath-day shalom. Syme, weary from his heroic rebellion against the anarchists’ rebellion, sees that upholding the Law and Order of God is always a rebellion against a sinful world: “Each thing that obeys law [has] the glory and isolation of the anarchist,” he muses.
C.S. Lewis echoes Chesterton in his call to arms in Mere Christianity:
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.
And in that rebellious loyalty we learn to image the Christ who submitted to the unjust law of sin and death to grant us true shalom with God and man.