How Much Freedom Should We Trade for Security?

Written in response to an essay contest sponsored by Shell and The Economist

Posted July 19, 2002

          Security versus freedom--the either/or of the new millennium--yet the very question indicates a flawed sense of both terms. It sets them up as mutually exclusive when, in fact, they go hand in hand, for can one truly be secure if one is not free? We make such a swap only when we define security as safety from certain things, not considering that by doing so, we make ourselves not only less free, but insecure in other ways. Thomas Jefferson understood this. He said, "A society that will trade a little order for a little freedom will lose both, and deserve neither."

          Until we transcend the security/freedom dilemma, we are ignoring the wisdom of another great thinker, Albert Einstein, who said, "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them." Trying to create security at the cost of freedom is doing just that. If we want to be either secure or free, we must be both--and that requires nothing short of a paradigm shift.

          Make yourself sheep and the wolves will eat you. Benjamin Franklin said that. He was speaking about the relationship between the people and the government at a time when the role of multinational corporations was beyond imagination. We esteem our founding fathers, but what we really need to do is listen to them. The challenge is to meld the bleaters and those whose eyes glisten in the dark into a We the People. Until that happens, the title of this essay should be How Much Freedom Should You Trade For Security, because in such a trade, some individuals give up their power to others. 

          This isn't so evident because Americans overvalue freedom as a slogan and undervalue it as a principle. Freedom's tricky, but how many class-hours are spent talking about what it means and what it takes to maintain? I went through twelve years of public education, and I don't remember any. Even if you laid the clichés of my history teachers end on end, it wouldn't take more than twenty minutes to recite them. Americans are encouraged to think of freedom as being about having one hundred and fifty cable channels to choose from and the right to be as wasteful as you want if you can afford it.

          These days, in the name of security, we are told more and more often that freedom is about secrecy. We can't know about the vice president's meetings with the energy moguls to decide the people's energy policy; we can't inquire into the lapses in security that allowed 9/11 to happen. People who question the direction the nation is taking are shouted down as being unpatriotic. Information is power. Secrecy and freedom are far more antithetical than freedom and security, yet that dichotomy is never discussed on the nightly news and no one is inviting essays on it.

          If we truly care about freedom and security, we have to value them as absolutes. Until we stop thinking that we can be free and secure and prosperous at the cost of the freedom, security, and prosperity of others, the world will continue to be a dangerous place. From Columbine to the Middle East, the urge to do things that impinge on people's sense of security comes from other people's sense of being oppressed and not free.

          When freedom is curtailed, power doesn't vanish, it just changes hands until, like wealth, a lot of it is held by a few. Whether you are talking about us as a species or as a nation of people, increasingly we is polarized into us and them, a situation that erodes both security and freedom, although there is lots of propaganda to the contrary.

Let's look at a specific example:

          Take the Justice Department's assertion that prisoners declared enemy combatants do not have the right to a lawyer and the American judiciary cannot second-guess the military's classification of such detainees. Georgetown University law professor David Cole said (NY Daily News, Jun 20, 2002), It's not just that you have no right to a lawyer, it's that you have no right to even have a hearing. . . . If that is true, then there is really no limit to the president's power to label U.S. citizens as bad people and then have them held in military custody indefinitely.

          It certainly erodes freedom, for who is to say a Joseph McCarthy won't come along and stretch the definition of "enemy combatants" to the same ridiculous lengths that the original stretched the definition of "Communist?" Could it someday include anyone of Arab descent who commits any crime? And what about those government-sponsored ads that declare kids who smoke pot are aiding and abetting terrorism? Is it at all conceivable that the war on drugs and the war against terror could be combined? The important part is the phrase forbidding the judiciary to "second-guess." This means an accusation is all it takes to rob someone of an essential right provided by the Constitution. It says You are not innocent until proven guilty; you are innocent until someone declares you aren't, and you have no legal recourse. Does such a measure really make Americans more secure?

          The problem with trading security for freedom is that once traded, we no longer have any control. A good example is our social security number. When this system was set up, Americans were promised that the numbers would not be used as identification. Now, however, these sacred numbers, which lead to all manner of personal information, are routinely required to cash checks at the supermarket and order cable TV. Some states even use them as the number on driver's licenses.

          Another example is drug testing. In 1986, the United States District Court of Tennessee ruled that the mass urine testing of fire-fighters without individualized "reasonable suspicion" was in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Lovvorn v. City of Chattanooga). Today, that stance has eroded to the point where, in many industries, even middle-aged applicants for clerical positions must turn over body fluids---often under humiliating conditions---and now certain districts are seeking to require all students to be drug tested before being eligible to participate in any extra-curricular activity.

          Drug testing is an instance where we were asked to give up freedom in order to be more secure. In 1983, only 3% of the Fortune 500 companies were testing one or more classes of job applicants or employees.  By 1991, that number had climbed to 97%. Yet a survey taken in 1998 revealed that in the month prior to the survey, ten million Americans had smoked pot. The American people gave up privacy with an expected return in mind, but they didn't get it. Think about it. Is there anything more oxymoronic than an American leader urging the American people to give up freedom for any reason?

          The problem with trading security for freedom is that, in the long run, the cure is almost guaranteed to be worse than the disease, though we have no way of knowing that until it is too late. Most of us do not have the time---or even the inclination---to truly consider the ramifications of what we are giving up in terms of freedom or what we are truly gaining in terms of security. Often we are not given the information to make a considered decision that involves understanding the implications of what is being surrendered. One of the things that makes us willing to give up freedom for security is fear; yet just this month (June, 2002) Attorney General John Ashcroft was exposed as radically overstating the "dirty bomb" situation involving Jose Padilla. Freedom is a sacred thing, and this situation makes it clear that the security versus freedom issue is not always untainted by political agendas.

          If we are going to honor democratic principles, we must start taking more civic responsibility. We are not just responsible for the answers; we're also responsible for the questions. For example, why (according to the Center for Defense Information) between 1990 and 1999 did the US sell arms to sixteen of the eighteen countries on the State Department's list of terrorist nations? When you look at the actual facts, it seems a much more relevant question than the ones being asked, yet such arms sales are not something most Americans are even cognizant of. Would such an understanding impact the willingness of the American people to surrender freedom for the promise of security? And what internal security measures would be strong enough to counteract the effect of those arms sales? Should there be no disclosure required before we are urged to give up our Constitutionally designated freedoms?

          Bottom line: How much freedom should we trade for security? is a simplistic question. Freedom is what America is all about. Give it up for any reason, and terrorism has won. Anyone who asks Americans to do so is in complicity. One thing they didn't stress in school that they should have: Remaining free requires courage.