Liberty and Safety

I remember, back in the mid-1980s, reading a news piece about travel conditions for citizens of the Soviet Union. The particular thing that has stuck with me for lo these many years was that a Soviet citizen would be subject to demands for his identification papers and reasons for traveling almost anytime he might choose to visit another place in his motherland. I also remember thinking how very sad it was for the people of the Soviet Union to be saddled with such requirements, and how grateful I was to live in a country where none of that was true.

Back in 2001-2002 when we were still having somewhat of a national debate about proposed travel regulations, I recalled that 80s news piece, and I remembered what one of our nation’s Founders (Franklin, I think?) had to say about it: “Those who would exchange essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” And here we are, and no need to rehearse the indignities to which we submit ourselves for the opportunity to use mass transportation now. Worse yet, there is no obvious endgame for the restrictions we eventually accepted; the status quo of air travel is almost surely going to remain this: “Your papers please. Where are your papers?!”

I struggled with this problem in 2001. I still do. We accepted the imposition of a surveillance society upon ourselves because, quite frankly, we were afraid. We did not want a repeat of 9/11. And that reaction was not irrational then, nor is it today. No one in his right mind would want to suffer what we did as a country on that day.

But have we paid too high a price? I do not know. At one time I thought that we absolutely had done so, that we would regret it eventually. We may yet still do so if we haven’t already. It is terrible to live in fear, though. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fear of the government or fear of being blown to smithereens. Wanting to ease the pressure of that fear is perfectly sensible.

Imagine being a nomad living in fear of a nearby band of raiders. They have attacked you and your family and friends. You have no way of knowing when they might attack again, but the likelihood of them doing so seems almost certain. What do you do? One response, and a perfectly reasonable one too, is to just leave the area. You’re a nomad; just find some other place for your temporary settlement and never return to the Dangerous Place. That strategy doesn’t work for us in the modern world, obviously: the raiders can find us no matter where we go.

Another strategy that you might take is to draw a line in the sand: “We are here, and we are not going to run. We will make them pay if they attack us again.” This is also reasonable, but it has costs (as the flight strategy does too). You just can’t be as footloose and fancy-free as you were before the raiders came, or you will likely find yourself dead. Constant vigilance!

Whichever strategy one chooses, it is clear that pretending the problem does not exist is a dead end. Your world has changed, and now you must change as well.

The upshot for the USA after 9/11 is that our world changed. Ideological purity is a dead-end when you are faced with a serious existential threat. We can’t run away from the terrorist whack jobs. We can’t hide from them. But we also don’t have to be sitting ducks, and that means that we have to be willing to accept that some unpleasant circumstances have now been forced upon us.

Franklin and the other Founders, bless them, did not face a foe dedicated to our obliteration, nor one which would indiscriminately kill non-combatants as a matter of strategy. Our circumstances are different, and they stink, but we must accept the way that our world just is now. We may (and should) seek to improve things, and even to be reconciled to our enemies, but acting as if things are not different today than they were 235 years ago in some important ways is not going to help us to survive as a free people.

In reviewing this post it seems obvious to me that I am at best ambivalent in my thinking about it even today. Truly, I despise flying now. I dislike the privacy invasions. I can’t stand the implicit presumption that I am a terrorist until I can prove otherwise by means of my identification and travel plans. This sickens me. But I don’t know of a way, nor can I imagine one, in which we can deal with the dangers of terrorism and at the same time preserve our 18th century liberties entirely unchanged. If someone has an idea for accomplishing this, I am certainly all ears.

But the fact is that human society does not exist for its own sake. It exists for the sake of the individual humans of which it consists. It exists for the sake of promoting human flourishing for everyone in a society. If the circumstances we face today compel us to do so, we must be willing to change the way that we live in order to promote that primary end. It seems to me that to uncritically insist upon liberties that our circumstances do not foster is inherently dangerous and foolish. We don’t have to like the fact that we have to prove our harmlessness every time we get on a plane, and we may even choose not to fly at all just because we so strongly dislike doing so, but to suppose that there is no legitimate reason for surrendering that liberty at least for now is foolish.

I could not see this in 2001-2002 when they started to insist that we show we are harmless before we could fly. It is annoying, but as best I can tell it is definitely not contrary to that primary end of promoting human flourishing. Being obliged to demonstrate that you are harmless to others, especially in a time when we find that almost anyone might be such a threat, is not the same as being herded into concentration camps.

Posted in Etc
One comment on “Liberty and Safety
  1. James Jarrett says:

    Well reasoned and well written.

    “Ideological purity is a dead-end when you are faced with a serious existential threat.” There is a big difference between compromising one’s principles and adapting to changing realities. The difference is a matter of perspective.

    “[H]uman society does not exist for its own sake. It exists for the sake of the individual humans of which it consists. It exists for the sake of promoting human flourishing for everyone in a society.”

    Yes! This (and your whole post, really) resonates with this post I just read by Tom Krattenmaker:

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