Notebook — From the August 2008 issue

Requiem for the Private Word

Most people in America love playing with tape recorders.
—Chairman Mao, incredulous at the fall of Richard Nixon

Robert Gensburg has practiced law in my community since 1967.  His wife, Leslie, hangs out with our friend Ellen, who used to own the  bookstore in town. According to local usage the Gensburgs count as my neighbors, though they live some miles from my house and I’m not sure I would recognize them on the street.

Last spring Leslie Gensburg complained to Verizon about problems with her phone service—peculiar clicks, inaudible dial tone—but the company was slow to respond, even after Leslie took the extraordinary step of summoning a lineman down from a telephone pole to demand satisfaction. About a month later Leslie picked up her home phone and was startled to hear her husband speaking to another party from his office, fifteen miles away. It so happens that one of Robert’s clients is a thirty-six-year-old Afghan man who has been held at Guantánamo since 2002. Naturally, the Gensburgs began to wonder if their phones had been tapped. Their suspicions grew with the discovery that massive amounts of confidential information had been moved around on Robert’s office computer. A forensic computer expert later confirmed that the machine had been hacked. Oddities in the Gensburgs’ phone service have continued throughout the past year; they have yet to receive a credible explanation from the phone company or the courts. Robert described these experiences in a recent talk entitled “The Rule of Law Is Dead.”

Well, we sort of knew that, but the point has a way of hitting home when it manifests so close to home. One wants to make a proper neighborly response. It occurred to me that some of us might declare our solidarity with the Gensburgs by inviting the national intelligence services to tap our phones as well.

But such a course has obvious drawbacks, not the least of which is its redundancy. In essence we have been proffering that invitation, to our government and to one another, for about as many years as Robert Gensburg has been practicing law.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His essay “Turning Away from Jesus: Gay Rights and the War for the Episcopal Church” appeared in the June issue.

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