Some people have no sense of humor.

In the summer of 1998, Eric Rudolph, bomber of two abortion clinics, a lesbian bar, and the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, was on the run from the law in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  Scores of FBI agents and other officials, trailed by reporters and television crews, swarmed the little town of Murphy and the surrounding hills, looking for clues to the whereabouts of the region’s most infamous citizen.

The response of many locals to this manhunt baffled these investigators.  Some of them flatly refused to cooperate with the investigation.  Some told reporters that if Eric Rudolph came to their door hungry and looking for food, they would feed him without uttering a word of reproach.  Some made a joke of the $25 million dollar chase, printing Rudolph T-shirts and bumper stickers.  One restaurant put out a sign: “Rudolph eats here.”

My wife and I operated a bookshop and a bed and breakfast in Waynesville, a town about 80 miles northeast of Murphy.  Sometimes that summer, when the search for Rudolph was at its peak, I would call Kris from the store, which was on Waynesville’s main street, to see how her day was going or to ask about supper.  On a few occasions, having read about the Murphy manhunt in that morning’s paper, I would add with a laugh, “Don’t forget to ask Eric what he’d like for dessert.  And ask him if he wants any books for reading.  I’m sure he’s lonely there in the basement.”

In July we began experiencing occasional trouble with the phone at the store.  I would pick up the receiver, and instead of a dial tone, would hear a series of clicks.  Because a large part of our business at that time depended on mail-order sales to homeschool families, and because the telephone was the key link to those sales, these malfunctions were more than a minor inconvenience.  Several times I reported the trouble to the phone company, where an employee would promise to have the line checked.  On each occasion the company reported back that all appeared to be well with the telephone.

On Labor Day, while I was away at a homeschool conference selling books, two men who identified themselves as FBI agents visited our shop.  Eric Rudolph, they informed Kris, was a voracious reader, and they were making the rounds of bookstores in the area to determine whether the owners might have spotted the fugitive.  The agents showed Kris a picture of Rudolph, looked around the store, and departed.  On my return from my trip, I contacted the other two bookstores in town, one of them a general bookshop like ours, the other a Christian bookstore.  Both owners informed me that no FBI agents had visited their shops.

The following spring we received notification of a tax audit.  The IRS agent visited our home twice, looked over our records, and spoke with us again by phone.  (Home visits, I learned later, are unusual; the meeting typically takes place in an office.)  The audit distressed us—this was our first and only occasion to undergo such an ordeal—and also perplexed us, as we were flat broke and deeply in debt at the time.  Surely the agent, sitting so stiffly in our kitchen with its 50-year-old sink and ancient beadboard walls, could detect our financial distress.  This affair finally ended with the agent telling us that we had incurred no penalties, that we had made some mistakes in reporting our taxes, but that other mistakes favored us.  So the matter was dropped.

Over the intervening years I cracked jokes to friends and family about wiretaps and an FBI investigation, but had always considered these events more a product of my imagination than of reality until the day I spoke with an Asheville man, an attorney, who was the coach of my youngest son’s basketball team.  When he casually mentioned that he had represented Rudolph for a few months following his arrest, I was stunned.  I asked him about the phone noises.  “Oh, I’m sure they were tapping your phone,” he said.  “They were doing it to a lot of folks.”  When I thought to ask him about the audit, he nodded.  “It was probably related.  They were after people and information in lots of different ways.”

For a long time this revelation left me sick with what the government had done to our family and with what such an investigation revealed about our country.  To be spied on, to have unknown persons listening to my calls, to be punished for no apparent reason by an audit, particularly at a time when my own personal finances were in an abysmal state: For the first time in my life I felt a foreigner in my own country.  Much of what happened still makes no sense to me.  Why did the agents not simply approach me and ask about the nature of the calls?  Did they truly think that, if Eric Rudolph were huddled inside my basement, I would be blathering about it over the telephone?  Did the person listening to the wiretaps not detect the laughter that followed my comments?  And that audit—was it really an investigation into our taxes, or was it a punishment for mocking the government’s failure to find a killer?

Even more disheartening have been the responses of those to whom I have told this story.  None of my listeners seem surprised, much less outraged, by the government’s antics.  Indeed, most friends and family members express either indifference or amusement.  The worst comment—“Well, I guess that will teach you not to make jokes”—came from a close friend, a reaction that diminished my respect for her and damaged our relationship.  Disconcerting, too, were those who have inanely remarked of government spying and intrusive investigations, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.”

In the course of my lifetime, the notion of a private life has suffered defeat after defeat in attacks not only by a government hungry for information but by a therapeutic culture that celebrates “openness.”  Despite numerous warnings and our own natural sense that such intrusions may have unpleasant, and possibly dire, consequences, we have slipped down a long, icy slope from which, possibly, there is no recovery.  A government that can dig into everything from our library withdrawals to our income; a government that demands more and more information when taking the census (in 2010, I filled out the regular form, then received another, longer form demanding even more information; that form now rests in the bowels of the city dump); a government that wants to know everything from the state of our health to the size of our personal debt: Such a government would in any other era fall under the label of tyranny.  The Americans I knew in my youth, Democrats and Republicans alike, would have associated such snooping with the Soviet Union.

In this brave new world of surveillance there remain some rays of hope.  For one, Americans are becoming more aware of the pitfalls in their communications technology.  They understand how easily the government may retrieve personal information from computers and the internet, and how vulnerable they are in terms of that information.  (Just ask David Petraeus.)  They know the dangers of posting certain personal information on Facebook, of using certain smartphones for personal business.

These days, according to recent polls, more Americans also distrust the efficacy of government.  Recent large-scale failures in Washington have made voters again aware of what they comprehend in their bones: that government makes a mess of whatever it touches.  They recognize, too, that government, with its vast stores of personal information, cannot always protect that information.  Some rural communities like Murphy continue to maintain a hardy distrust of elected officials and bureaucrats, particularly at the federal level.  When Eric Rudolph was arrested, for example, he entered the police station in good health, shaven, well clothed, and wearing new shoes.  Clearly, he had help from others during his five years of hiding out in the mountains.  Yet to this day the government has made no further arrests of those abetting his escape from the law.  Apparently, no one, including Rudolph himself, reported these people to the government.

Finally, government incompetence itself should give us hope.  The government has enormous resources and mountains of information, but its many mistakes—costly ones like the Solyndra scandal, deadly ones like Operation Fast and Furious—reveal a general inefficiency and a plethora of foolish plans.  A government equipped with the best technology in the world and with enormous access to information touted the “Arab Spring” and helped dislodge allies in Egypt and Libya from their places of power.  Now this Arab Spring looks likely to become an “Arab Winter,” an anti-American blizzard that even an amateur political observer might have predicted.  Such bureaucratic bungling must give us some reason for cheer at the prospects for privacy.

It wasn’t the feds who captured the “Olympic Park Bomber.”  After five years on the lam, while digging through a Murphy dumpster, Eric Rudolph was apprehended as a vagrant by a rookie police officer.