Choosing between security and freedom

By Lev Weiss (for Safe Democracy)

Lev Weiss writes on the rise of a security craze in the United States following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In Weiss‘ opinion, security is a farce, impossible to ensure without empowering government with authoritarian police power. Fear reduces our capacity to understand the complex and human phenomenon of fundamentalist Islam, and gives government the leeway to limit our freedoms. There is nothing to fear, but fear itself.

Lev Weiss is finishing his studies on Political Science at Columbia University in New York. He is part of Safe Democracy Foundation’s staff in New York and is the author of numerous articles and essays on US Foreign Policy in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

ON A RECENT FLIGHT HOME I RECEIVED AN UNPLEASANT SURPRISE: Ladies and gentlemen, the Captain announced from the flight deck once we were air born, I just wanted to remind you that under US Law it is illegal to congregate and talk in groups on this aircraft. Any passengers that form a group, either in the aisles or near the lavatories, will be asked by the flight attendants to return to their seats. Thank you.

I was still angry by the time I got home about this new governmental absurdity, so instead of sleep that night, I opened my old copy of American constitutional law to the section containing the Bill of Rights.

For those of us who have forgotten, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The Captain had used the word “congregate”, but what he had really meant to say was “assemble”. According to his statement, therefore, and disregarding the public/private divide of what is a public street and what is an airplane aisle, constitutionally protected action was illegal aboard Delta Flight 127.

It is no surprise that no one spoke out against the Captain’s announcement during the flight. With movies and hot meals and reclining seats, no one had any interest to assemble and discuss the US Law’s blatant violation of the 1st Amendment. Like having to throw out an expensive perfume, or drink an entire bottle of Coca-Cola before going through security, the ever-increasing limitations on our freedoms are annoyances, and nothing else. But some ask, isn’t it worth being slightly irritated in order to be safe?

The answer to this question is, and must always be, a resounding no. While one of the central roles of government is to ensure the security of its citizens, just how far should security go?

From the cryptic “national alert” levels, to the Patriot Act’s dismissal of due process, to the use of torture in secret prisons, to random bag searches, to NSC wiretaps, to overly paranoid security lines, government seems to be taking more and more leeway in the name of the latest “security craze”. And while security is no doubt important –no one wants to be blown up in a terrorist attack– we must be wary of a government that takes away our freedoms for what it claims to be our own good.

The truth of the matter is that security itself is a farce, impossible to enforce without trampling on everything that we, as a nation of free people, hold sacred. Who says that the terrorists have to get us in planes? What’s to stop them from blowing up buses (as they do in Israel), or trains (as they do in India and Spain)? And what is to stop them from releasing anthrax into our subway tunnels? Or opening fire in Times Square with machine guns? Or blowing up the security line itself?

The painful reality is that we are not safe. We are never safe from ideas; and Fundamentalist Islamic Terrorism is an idea. Yet when it murdered thousands of innocent people we still refused to listen. When will we seek to understand the causes, rather than flee from complexity into the hollowness of fear? Ideas should not be confronted with blind force; they should be met with understanding, because nothing short of a police State can guarantee our absolute safety.

But perhaps that is what we want! There is no doubt that ethnic Germans felt safe under Hitler’s Germany as long as they were pureblooded, and that the Spanish were secure under Franco’s iron fisted repression. But it seems pretty clear that our constitution would not allow this kind of authoritarian regime to get off the ground. Or would it?

Repressive government builds slowly, taking advantage of the fears of its population. We all have reason to be afraid –terrorism presents a truly complex and difficult challenge for our generation– but when our fears are used against us as justifications for the dissolution of our liberties, then it is ourselves that we must fear most.

Following a bomb threat at my high school my senior year, the school board decided to lock all of the doors with chains, and force students to pass through a metal detector before going to class. In response to this policy, an old friend and history teacher of mine, John Tottenham, warned the class: “Beware fear, for it will make you weak, timorous, and small. And if anything, at the end of your life, you should hold your head up high and say that you were anything but small.”

“To be locked in, he concluded, is to be locked out; to be locked down is to be locked up.”