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Born in the ***

Ever since Edward Snowden plugged his thumb drive into the USB port of global consciousness, I've been monitoring myself and others for signs of incipient paranoia. I detected a few almost immediately. While emailing with another journalist about the case of Michael Hastings, the reporter who died in a fiery L.A. car crash just hours after asking for legal help from Wikileaks for some unspecified reason, I noticed myself rewording certain phrases to avoid using conspicuous key words such as "Assassination," "NSA," and "Bomb." (Wait—I just used them. It's fine, though. Isn't it? This is a public forum, a major magazine. Plus it's still daytime. And I don't need to drive tonight.) I also noticed my conversation partner expressing himself with uncharacteristic blandness—not to mention brevity. This retreat into euphemism happened again during a phone call with another friend—this time not a reporter—on the subject of the IRS. We were talking about a bill I'd just received for allegedly unpaid taxes from seven years ago. About to use the agency's formal name, I caught myself, paused, and said "the feds" instead. Hanging up, I repented of that word too—and repented again when only a few days afterward a similar bill from a different year arrived. I concealed the faint alarm this caused until my girlfriend found the bill and joked: "Tweeting about the NSA again." I chuckled, but it was a forced and phony chuckle.  

Then I stopped tweeting about the NSA.

So far, so good. No more bills from the... From "Them."

The problem, though, is I can't control my friends, some of whom don't yet practice verbal hygiene. One, a screenwriter I know who's grown a bit wacky about the Hastings matter, started sending me messages two weeks ago with inside tips from his LAPD cop friends that suggest the investigation of the death has not been as aggressive as it could be. I answered the messages, but not immediately, and when I did it required emotional effort. I had to push certain qualms off to the side and muster a kind of hard-nosed, tough-guy swagger borrowed from reporters in old movies. It all felt very silly, yet not imprudent. I felt a bit better when I remembered that Twitter, unlike those other major online companies, had declined to cooperate with the... With 'Them.'

Though maybe I should leave off the quotation marks. And the capital letter. Those might be red flags, too.

With them.

Screw it, you know who I mean by now: with t**m. 

It creeps up on you, as in the old Buffalo Springfield song, "For What It's Worth." I remember first hearing it when I was in college, long after the 1960s had simmered down. It struck me as quaint, I recall, especially this part: "It starts when you're always afraid / Step out of line, the Man comes and takes you away." The Man! What corny, dated hippy talk. And what a melodramatic way to think, personifying all authority as a sinister, colossal, lurking t***. 

I understand better now. Bland. Three little letters. Might mean anything. Common word.

The ***

F**k it, I think I'll start using it right now.

Or maybe tomorrow morning. 

It's getting dark out.