Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A False Choice

The Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program raises a lot of questions. Who was spied on? Why? How will this constitutional crisis resolve itself? Will Congress force the President to obey federal law, or will the President realize he can violate the law with impunity?

Apart from these concrete, legally rooted, questions, more philosophical questions also come to mind. Can American concepts of liberty survive an unending, vaguely defined "war on terror"? How much are we willing to surrender for security? Some leading Republicans, notably Senators Trent Lott and John Cornyn, claim that liberty doesn't matter if we are dead. Therefore, they argue, the administration should do whatever is necessary to protect Americans, and worry about constitutional rights later.

There are several problems with this position. I will focus on one: Lott and Cornyn are making an incorrect assumption. They assume that we can make a deal to insure our physical safety. Give the President your freedom, they say, and he will protect you.

The reality is that there can be no such guarantee. The choice between security and liberty is a false one, because we cannot "choose" security, as if we were selecting a candidate on a ballot. Unfortunately, no one can guarantee there will be no more attacks on American soil. No matter how many phones we tap, no matter how many prisoners we torture, no matter how many constitutional amendments we suspend, we can never 100% insure the safety of the American people. Against the backdrop of this grim reality, men like Lott and Cornyn are willing to sell their freedom quite cheaply.

The President and his defenders are simply unwilling to speak frankly to Americans. In this, I believe they are severely underestimating Americans. This nation made it through revolution, civil war, world wars, and a cold war that threatened the possibility of nuclear annihilation. In the past, Americans did not to surrender to fear. When asked by their government to sacrifice, Americans have responded.

This administration has asked little, if anything, of Americans, other than those in the armed services. What would happen if President Bush leveled with us? What if he said, "Look, there are no guarantees in life. There are accidents, there are acts of god, and, tragically, there are terrorists attacks. We can choose to take refuge, figuratively and literally, allowing fear to rule our lives. Or we can say: the United States is still the United States. We will go on with our lives. Our government will take necessary actions to respond to the possibility of attacks, but it will always follow the law. This country has withstood far worse than this. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda do not have the power to alter our democracy, to narrow our liberties, to rewrite our Constitution. Only we can do that. And we will never do that. This is America, and it will always be America."

We have a vacuum of leadership. There is no George Washington to rally the troops, no FDR telling us to reject fear. Instead, we have a President who exploits fear and uncertainty for political advantage. We have "leaders" in Congress like Senators Lott and Cornyn who would turn us into frightened children, seeking security as if we were buying protection from a schoolyard bully. We can do a lot better than this. Our elected officials are underestimating us.

It is unfortunately true that security cannot be guaranteed. But liberty and our constitutional democracy can be guaranteed, if those in power have the courage to come out of their psychological bunkers and defend our Constitution.


Blogger Mr Ornery said...

Very good points. I hope people are paying attention. The logic, 'we need to trample on individual rights and freedoms in order to preserve rights and freedoms' is bogus. And as you said so well, life does not come with a guarantee.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Chris Edelson said...

thanks. It is a scary time and I wish there could be guarantees. But it makes me furious when Bush and others exploit fear. Thanks for the comment.

9:33 AM  

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