National Security

Liberty vs. Security — or Liberty AND Security?

Both are within our grasp, but until we realize it, the solutions we seek in the battle against terrorism will fall short.

Brian Mark Weber · Jun. 9, 2017

Recently, British Prime Minister Theresa May tweeted, “If human rights laws get in the way of tackling extremism and terrorism, we will change those laws to keep British people safe.” May’s boldness is refreshing on the surface, as it seems to differ from the typical European approach of downplaying the threat posed by terrorists. But on the other hand, she’s suggesting that Liberty might need to become subservient to defeating our enemies. Maybe that’s why yesterday’s election went so badly for her and the losing Conservative Party.

The debate over Liberty and security is even more pressing here in the United States, where discussions over government’s encroachment upon our liberties and our Constitution have grown exponentially since September 11, 2001.

These debates often revisit a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

The problem is context. Franklin wasn’t referring to a situation in which the British government was offering security in exchange for colonists surrendering their rights. Instead, the quote references a situation in which the Pennsylvania legislature was being asked to give up its authority to tax the Penn family in order to fund security on the frontier during the French and Indian War.

Even if the context of Franklin’s quote was in line with our popular understanding of it, the idea that we must strive for a balance between Liberty and security is questionable. Americans tend to think that the two are interdependent, and that giving to one necessitates taking from the other.

Until we realize, however, that Liberty and security are both within our grasp, the solutions we seek in the battle against terrorism will fall short of our objectives and expectations. The problem is that politicians derive power from the common misconception that we must go through the Constitution and decide which rights we’re going to surrender each time we enact new measures to secure the country against terrorists.

David French writes in National Review, “I agree with critics of the war on terror who urge the government to safeguard constitutional rights. I don’t want to see fundamental American liberties eroded for the sake of fighting a shadowy terrorist enemy that’s a paper tiger on any real battlefield. But we can’t have it all. We can’t safeguard civil liberties at home, refuse to fight wars abroad, extend our arms to immigrant populations from much of the Middle East, and minimize the terrorist threat.”

French makes some good points, but do we really need to go so far as regime change and nation-building abroad to keep Main Street safe here at home? One can make the case that 15 years of this approach hasn’t stopped terrorists from gaining the upper hand. One can also make the case that Barack Obama completely undermined our efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which practically created the Islamic State.

In any case, what sense does it make to open our doors to tens of thousands of unvetted migrants at the same time that we’re sending more soldiers to Afghanistan?

Determining who can or cannot come into our country can be accomplished without touching the constitutional rights of American citizens. But we all know what happened to Donald Trump when he tried this approach.

One of the challenges we face in dealing with terrorism is that people who commit these atrocities typically don’t violate any laws until they actually kill someone. This makes it easier for terrorists to fly under the radar, so to speak, and avoid action by law enforcement until it’s too late. Vetting people who come into this country is an efficient approach that provides us with the security we need and protects our rights at the same time.

Perhaps the reason why the courts have rejected Trump’s proposal is that its implementation would be a clear signal to the American public that they can have rights and security. And then maybe we’d come up with more sensible solutions to combat terrorism without having to worry about surrendering any more Liberty.

Until we break through the narrow-minded idea that Liberty and security cannot coexist, we’ll never stave off the assault on our Constitution.

Theresa May’s statement about changing human rights laws to fight terrorism is understandable to some extent, as it reflects the broad frustration of Western political leaders charged with fighting an unconventional enemy. But politicians in Europe and here in the U.S. need to stop suggesting that fighting terrorism requires a trade-off between Liberty and security. We can have both.

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