Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Liberty vs Security

Last issue of The Atlantic Monthly was its 150th anniversary issue and they asked several prominent writers, politicians, inventors, etc to provide an essay on “the American idea” in 300 words or less. There were a lot of good responses but this one from David Foster Wallace stood out above the rest. Wallace brilliantly points out that liberty is "the American idea" and if we allow fear to overtake America - well then it's not really America anymore is it?

Just Asking

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, "sacrifices on the altar of freedom?" In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life - sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin's time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice - either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer - are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they're worth it? Was there no such debate because we're not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don't even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

2 comments:

The Monkey House Chronicles said...

I read that in last months issue and gave it quite a bit of thought. Thank you for posting on such a thought provoking issue. Definitely something to wonder about as we come upon another opportunity to elect leaders of this great nation.

Robert Enders said...

Most of the new rules do not really serve to make us safer. Banning all sharp objects from flights is a waste of time, money, and sharp objects. It takes more than a boxcutter to hijack a flight these days. You can't really expect that every passenger is going to seat quietly in their seat while some fanatic slashes the throat of the pilot.