“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
I often wrestled with the above statement, re-quoted so many times by so many people in the face of any security argument. In the urge to “connect the dots” after 9/11, I often wondered what Ben Franklin would have thought of his now famous statement. Would he still agree? Is it too much to ask to purchase a little safety?
The world we live in today is much different from that 234 years ago to the day. We live in a time of magic and awe. Six billion people inhabit this planet, many of them able to share their thoughts and ideas with millions of others instantly regardless of distance or location. We are able to send anyone or anything anywhere on the globe within 24 hours. A butterfly flapping it’s wings in Africa may be able to eventually spawn a hurricane in the north Atlantic, but that’s nothing compared to the speed of an email or Twitter wave.
Never before has the world been so open and interconnected, and every day the lives of thousands everywhere gets incrementally better as the walls that held back human progress in the remote locations of the world come crumbling down. Yet the same mechanisms that whisk thoughts and goods and people from place to place also send threats and malcontent over the same channels. Some are terrified at the rapid changes in people’s lives, and are driven to violence. Others believe that the rest of the world should stay as it is, that we should build the walls again, and leave the rest to it’s machinations.
To the latter group, it is a fool’s wish. The world will never close up again. And it is here we find ourselves today.
I wondered what Ben Franklin would have said. If we were not to give up liberty for security, then were we to give up security? Would it be inevitable that people would be bossed and shoved around? Terrorized? Harmed? Killed? Who would advocate this? No, I thought, people were being too thin-skinned. It doesn’t matter if the FBI or so is reading your email, they’re not out to get you anyways. An extra security line here or there to check for bombs is fine. The nation got it’s fill of seeing people jump out of skyscrapers to their deaths to avoid being burned alive, and we would all toughen up to avoid having to go through that ordeal again.
I thought this for a while, until I passed a New Hampshire license plate.
It’s been said so much from such an early time that the words became meaningless to me, and yet one day, driving down the interstate, it clicked. There was a time, when people didn’t have a say in how their affairs were run. They were forced to pledge loyalty to some guy an ocean away, who didn’t give a shit about them unless the taxes we note being paid. People were tried and convicted in mock courts, under laws that were suspended at will, and where death by hanging could be the penalty for a trivial offense.
The people who endured this chose not to fall in line, but rather, they declared war.
The statements “Live Free or Die”, “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!” are quotes that are referred to often. They were spoken by ordinary men who were fully willing to embrace the threat of harm to ensure the right to live as they pleased. A terrible conflict ensued, and thousands perished.
We honor this day and others during the year and speak to those days when those citizens before us decided enough was enough and they would be terrorized no longer. We celebrate, rightfully, what was a monumental occasion.
It has been over two centuries since that conflict. But these days I feel that sentiment, the lessons from that struggle, are more relevant than ever. Our world holds untold promise and prosperity, but also new threats and dangers. We face risks and read about horrors that the founding fathers never would have imagined.
Many in this country think we should do everything we can to protect our citizens from every conceivable threat and attack. This is a laudable, if unrealistic, aim. Nevertheless, we try. But in doing so we often erode those liberties the founding fathers spoke of. We read email, install full body scanners, take off our shoes at airports. You can no longer photograph some buildings or officials, for fear of undertaking reconnaissance. Some declare that the constitution should no longer apply to those accused of terrorism, U.S. citizen or not.
Those in the security business would tell you that these measures work to a marginal extent. A determined attacker will get through eventually. However, many would argue that any measurable increase in security is worth the price.
The founding fathers would disagree.
No one would argue the need for practical measures, for vigilance, for a strong military and law enforcement. But the day will arrive, occasionally, where harm is done or lives are lost. And it is we, the ordinary U.S. citizen, who must remember that it is the price we pay for enjoying such little interference in our affairs, for the right to do as we please while upholding the rights of others, for the right to choose, to speak out, to condone and complain.
We are not defenseless. Bravery, ingenuity, cleverness, and tenacity continue to protect this nation of 300 million every day. We are not on the verge of being annihilated, and we were wise to structure our government in such a way in that we rely on no one man or family for continuity. Our military, our intelligence agencies, federal and local police, all of our lines of defense filter and stop so much. But there is a threshold at which point security begins to trump liberty, and it is there where we must accept that residual risk and bear the burden ourselves, as the revolutionaries once promised to do, and did.
Have a happy 4th of July everyone. =)