Americans Deserve Neither Liberty Nor Security
The current push to give up rights for the illusion of safety
I have reached the conclusion that Americans have enjoyed so much freedom and prosperity for so many years that they have come to take it for granted, and not only fail to see such circumstances as unique in the history of mankind, but as commonplace. And because they assume such has always been the norm, they fail to realize that such prosperity and freedom must be nurtured, cultivated, and defended. How else can you explain the re-election of Barack Obama, who added more debt in his first three years than the first forty-one presidents combined, and more debt in four years than George W. Bush (not exactly a fiscal conservative) accumulated in eight years? How else to explain the seeming indifference to stratospheric debt levels that keep rising by more than $4 billion per day? We seem to think that America, because it has been the richest and most powerful nation in our lifetimes, will always be such.
Likewise, while the world around us seems in constant turmoil, until the attacks of 9/11 (2001, not the Benghazi attacks that we still have no answers for), Americans felt safe and secure on our homeland, buffered from the violence in Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world that fills our nightly news. But on that day we had our nose bloodied, and we felt vulnerable. Yet for the next eight years under Bush, we had no more attacks on American soil, and we once again slipped back in complacency.
Now, violent attacks are the steady diet of our news media. The Boston Marathon bombing. The ricin letters. Sandy Hook. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Columbine. The Underwear Bomber. The Shoe Bomber. The Times Square Bomber. The Giffords shooting. Suddenly we seem vulnerable again, and in that vulnerability we seek safety and security.
Former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel famously opined that government should never let a crisis go to waste. And so it hasn’t. In the aftermath of these attacks, government has stepped forward with all sorts of solutions to “bring the perpetrators to justice” and to “make sure that this doesn’t ever happen again!” Those solutions generally involve eroding individual rights and allowing government to exert greater control over our lives. But does that make us safer? No. The reality is that we live in a free and open society (unless you want to buy an incandescent light bulb…but I digress), and such freedom comes with a cost. It means that in exchange for individual liberty, we accept that some will choose to use their freedom to commit evil and harm us. Or, as President Dwight Eisenhower famously summed up the situation, “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care, and so on. The only thing lacking … is freedom.”
In the name of increased security, government commits all sorts of violations of liberty, and infringes on our rights more with each passing day. The current furor over gun control is a perfect example. Those who loathe the thought of private citizens taking up weapons to defend themselves seek to make it more difficult, and nearly impossible, for anyone other than the police or military to own weapons. They demand a ban on “assault” weapons, which are actually just semi-automatic weapons that they deem as looking too scary or “militaristic”. They call for expanded background checks, increased taxes on weapons and ammunition, and for requiring gun-owners to carry liability insurance on their weapons. There has even been legislation proposed that would allow doctors to add patient names to a list that prohibits gun ownership, without ever informing the individual or proving that they are a danger to society.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress passed with broad support, and Bush signed, a law which gave the government broad powers to investigate and detain American citizens in connection with suspected terrorist activity. We know that law enforcement agencies have for some time been intercepting our communications in search of potential threats, and now comes the revelation that the Internal Revenue Service claims that they have the legal right to read our email, based on their position that we have no expectation of privacy in that form of communication. Two and a half years ago I wrote about the Z Backscatter Van (ZBV), cutting edge monitoring technology that fits into a common delivery van. While driving through your neighborhood, it uses passive surveillance technology to look through the walls of your home, collecting data on the number of people within the home, their movements and communications, etc. It lets government watch you without ever even announcing its presence, with no need for a warrant. Originally developed for the military for use in terrorist-filled, urban warfare scenarios, it is now being purchased and used by cities and states against our own citizens. They can look into our homes without cause, the exact opposite of what the Constitution dictates.
When George W. Bush was president, liberal Democrats warned that his government would spy on its citizens, and send jack-booted thugs into our homes in the middle of the night, arresting us on false pretenses, terrorizing us in ways reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Yet by and large, these same people not only passively accepted the renewal and expansion of the PATRIOT Act, but actually defended Obama’s use of military drones among the civilian population. It wasn’t until attention was focused on them by Senator Rand Paul’s lengthy filibuster that the Obama administration, in the form of a letter to Paul by Attorney General Eric Holder, finally conceded that it did not have the authority to assassinate American citizens by drone attack (Obama will, however, continue to use drones to spy on American citizens…he just won’t light them up with Hellfire missiles).
In the world of the 24-hour news cycle, which feed us every gruesome detail of every atrocity committed in our midst, recycled several times an hour, and populating the newsfeeds of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, we are now more aware of the dangers surrounding us than ever before. Ironically, it is this same ever-present information tsunami that overloads our brains, and feeds our fears. I’d wager that most people would be surprised to learn that, despite the horrors of Boston and Sandy Hook which we’ve been exposed to constantly, such attacks are actually on the decline. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, over the last two decades or so the firearm-related crime rate dropped from 6 victims per 1,000 residents (1994) to 1.4 victims per 1,000 residents (2009). Additionally, “Gun-related homicide is most prevalent among gangs and during the commission of felony crimes,” so the danger is actually concentrated primarily in urban areas. So why the push to disarm law-abiding citizens?
If we are to retain our liberties, we cannot fall prey to emotional responses to the commission of atrocities by evil people. We must understand that, while we can seek to minimize the damage done by such crimes, we can’t ever eliminate them completely, and it is a fool’s errand to give up freedom for the illusion of safety. In the end, we’ll not have stopped evil people from doing horrible things; we’ll only have insured that when they do, it will take longer to stop them, and we’ll just have that many more dead to mourn over. As noted by historian Henry Steele Commager, “Freedom is not a luxury that we can indulge in when at last we have security and prosperity and enlightenment; it is, rather, antecedent to all of these, for without it we can have neither security nor prosperity nor enlightenment.”
Or, to borrow the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Americans have become soft and coddled, unfamiliar with the need to fight for liberty at all costs, and for holding tight to our freedoms even in the face of danger…especially in the face of danger. If such a pattern continues, we’ll have neither liberty nor security…and we won’t deserve it.