Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur
jducoeur

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A Thanksgiving Meditation on Safety and Freedom

Thanksgiving is always a fine exploration of community -- getting together with people you don't see all that often, and talking about subjects wide and varied. This year was no different. But as the discussion turned to a (fairly heated) discussion of current politics, it occurred to me that the biggest problem facing the US today is the very fact that we are not talking about these subjects enough. So I'm going to put aside sweeter subjects for a moment, and talk seriously. I beg your indulgence for some heavier thoughts, and ask that you bear with me, read these words and consider them. They're long, but I think the topic matters.

The subject at hand is civil liberties, and the tradeoff between them and safety. For a fair number of years, these two conflicting forces have been more or less in balance: there's always been a collection of lobbies pushing against individual freedoms in the name of personal protection, but they've usually been blunted by most folks' healthy understanding that concepts like privacy and individuality matter as well.

Today, however, things have been knocked well and truly askew, by last year's national trauma. I use the word "trauma" carefully here. A real trauma is something that upsets your balance: something you can't let go of, and which skews your sense of priority. In many cases, it leads to obsession. And obsession is exactly what we're dealing with today.

I find it interesting that, in discussions about the current assault on civil liberties, those who really care about it tend to demonize those leading that assault -- I've been prone to that myself. It's easy to say, and easier to belive, that this is the result of power-mongers in government, who are cynically manipulating the situation in order to increase their own powers. It might even be true in a few cases -- we'll always have a few of the nastiest sort of politician, who thrive on playing on peoples' fears. But for the most part, what we're looking at is simply a bunch of obsessives, who sincerely believe that nothing matters as much as safety, and that the paramount concern is making sure that everyone is entirely safe from terrorism.

And yet -- viewed from a little distance, it's clear that this is obsession. It fails to be a rational approach for several reasons. First, the threat to any individual, while serious, is far less grave than the media might make it sound. Despite the thousands who died on 9/11, the odds are startlingly against getting yourself killed by terrorists. We don't throw all of our national resources into a War Against Cars (or even a War Against Drunk Driving), despite the fact that that kills vastly more people than terrorism. The difference is trauma, and obsession.

Second, the obsession tends to ignore the costs. Terrorism isn't something that is going to affect most of us, but curtailment of personal freedom is. The problem is abuse. I'm entirely willing to believe that most or all of the people who are changing the laws sincerely believe that they aren't going to hurt any Good Americans -- that they're only going after the Bad Guys. Yet, this ignores the way the real world works. In reality, investigations go wrong. In reality, innocent people do get swept up in them all the time, because of misunderstandings and confusions. In reality, the government rarely likes to acknowledge its mistakes when such things happen: the tendency is always to sweep things under the rug. And in reality, none of us are quite as innocent as we'd like to think. In a world where you have no privacy from the government, and few laws to constrain its powers, it is quite easy for anyone to be painted as a "potential terrorist", or a "sympathizer", or even a "well-meaning person who was duped by evil".

(None of this is idle fearmongering -- it is the sort of thing that happens every day, all over the world. Nor is the US immune to it: anyone who believes that needs to review their history of the 1950s. The checks we place on our government are less about constraining the intentional abusers. Rather, they're in place to check our own worst instincts: to see demons under every bed, and to find ways to shift blame when we err.)

Third, the goal is fundamentally flawed. It works on the pretext that the world can be made safe, so it is worth any cost to make it so. Yet this is simply untrue -- the reality is that life is dangerous. The only way to be absolutely safe is to be absolutely controlled, for any action outside the trivial imposes danger. We must not pursue a sham vision to the detriment of all else. Rather, we need to pay attention to what our goals are, what the real costs are, and what we're really getting for that price.

The worst problem, though, isn't so much what the obsessives are trying to do. Rather, it's the fact that the populace is letting it happen quietly, without pushing back nearly hard enough. Both of these desires, for safety and freedom, are natural. But it is almost always the responsibility of those in government to push the safety line: the sort of people who seek a role in government tend to think that way. Which means that it's the responsibility of the rest of us to push back -- to see that the measures taken are moderate and measured, rather than a blind rush to any safe harbor, regardless of consequence.

The disturbing thing about this Thanksgiving discussion was the very fact that it was so unusual. Too many people today have an aversion to anything that smacks of politics that verges on pathological. I see a pervasive sense of helplessness, a feeling that the individual citizen cannot change anything, and so there is no point in trying. That leads to behaving like an ostrich -- hiding our heads in the sand and hoping that things turn out okay.

And yet, this misses the one thing that the ordinary citizen not only can do, but must do, namely talk. It's easy to dismiss talk as ineffectual, to think that what we say among ourselves makes no difference. But this is exactly wrong, because this talk is, in the aggregate, a powerful force. Remember that most politicians are, deep down, basically spineless -- they sway with the winds of public opinion, and are easily led in the way that they think leads to re-election. The safety line is politically easy: the average politician is reluctant to oppose any measure that might ever-so-slightly increase the public safety. The only way that they are going to show any courage to protect civil liberties is if they believe their constituents care. And that doesn't come just from votes -- it comes from plain, simple talk, at all levels.

And so we come around to civic responsibility. Somehow, this age has become infected with a horrible cynicism, a belief that there is something trite about this idea of each citizen's responsibility to the commonweal. Yet, it was the ideal that this country was founded upon, and it has rarely been more crucial. The US was not founded upon the power of the government, but upon the power of the people. And the system is designed to give the people both the right and the responsibility to hold their elected officials to account.

What does this mean for the ordinary person in the street? It means that you have some critical responsibilities, which must not be shirked -- the system works only if everyone takes it seriously, because it's the mass force that matters. Some specific aspects of this:

  • Keep yourself informed. There is a lot of seriously scary stuff in the works right now. All of it is wrapped in respectability, and each is easy to justify on its own. But the collective effect is a massive reduction in civil liberty and personal privacy. That's why today's idealistic safety measures, left unchecked, will inevitably lead to tomorrow's repression and abuse: because we're making abuse far too easy.
  • Related to that: maintain a healthy and balanced skepticism. Don't simply listen to what they say is going to happen: think about it, and think about the consequences down the line. Think about the ecology of laws that is being grown here, and how they all relate to each other. Don't be a sheep -- really try to grok what's happening for yourself.
  • At the same time, don't give in to either paranoia or despair. Some come to the conclusion that we're doomed to a steady erosion of civil liberties, and that isn't true. It's your duty to find the balance that you find right, and argue for it.
  • Let your voice be heard, at all levels. No, your individual letter to your congressman isn't likely to sway a vote all by itself. But the massed public voice makes all the difference in how these things play out. A single letter may just be a drop in the bucket, but ten thousand letters matter a lot. And perhaps the most important thing you can do is to simply talk to the people around you, and make sure that they are thinking about these matters as well.
  • Act collectively. There are a lot of organizations out there that are carrying on the good fight. The ACLU is the most conspicuous, and possibly the most important, but there are hundreds of others. If you have even a small amount of money or time available, the need is great.
  • All that said, don't counter obsession with obsession. This isn't a matter that is going to be settled today, this year, or possibly even this decade. The balance between safety and liberty is perhaps the central issue of our age, and it's going to be a long debate. Be determined, be persistent, but don't make yourself or anyone else crazy. It's a matter to always have at the back of your mind, but not one to dominate your thoughts.

I suppose all of the above boils down to an attempt to show folks that they need to care about this issue. There's a word that has sometimes been co-opted by the wrong connotations, and which needs to be reclaimed: the word is "patriotism". Being patriotic means caring about your country, and this is a time when caring really matters. Because the US has never been about borders, or conquest, or even security; rather, the essence of this country has always been individual and communal liberty. It's at the heart of our most basic myths, from the original settlers to the lone cowboy. It is the central tenet enshrined in the Constitution, a document that was never so much about creating the laws of this land as about defining a spirit. It is the idea of America, an ideal that we parrot often but don't think about quite often enough.

So please -- talk. Feel free to forward this essay or link to it if you think it has some value. But more importantly, keep an eye on what's going on, talk with those around you about it, make up your own mind about the appropriate balance point on this spectrum, and make yourself heard. Because the only protection we have against our collective worst instincts is our collective rational thoughts...
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