They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.— Benjamin Franklin
Today, as we celebrate Constitution Day, it is worthwhile to reflect on Franklin's words in the context of homeland security. Are President Bush's policies — military tribunals for captured combatants, closer surveillance of suspected terrorists, more expansive searches and wiretapping — intolerable assaults on our constitutional freedom that no amount of increased security can justify? Or are they grave and necessary sacrifices, stoically to be borne in the face of unprecedented danger? Perhaps they are neither.
Franklin was a man careful with his words; note what he says: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither...." Neither can be sacrificed at the expense of the other. Both are necessary, and rightly understood, both can be achieved. But if we would have both security and freedom, what then of our current situation? Professor Charles Kesler recently made the following observation:
[T]he spirit of homeland defense is not that of the militia of old, nor even that of the duck-and-cover civil defense drills of the Cold War-era (whose purpose was at least clear), much less that of the valiant passengers of flight 93. On the contrary: the predominant theme of homeland defense is not civic virtue but civic anxiety.... The epitome of these efforts is airport security.
Manifestly, airport security is not a system designed to catch terrorists. This is a system designed to whip the population into line, actually into several lines, each filled with resentful citizens, many shoeless, shuffling back and forth through screening portals. It is as if, in a single stroke, America had been returned to the soup lines of the Great Depression, except that there is no soup.... Of course, one of the byproducts of this approach is to generate among the flying public a sullen cynicism towards homeland security, and by extension towards the whole government. By the tortured logic of this program, however, that just goes to show why you can't trust the flying public!
Like many conservatives, we are offended at the most feckless and ineffective aspects of homeland security. We would put up with it, and more, if we were persuaded that it was actually about catching terrorists. And insofar as some of Bush's other policies are effective — greater cooperation among law enforcement, immigration, and customs agencies for instance — we applaud them.
The ACLU, on the other hand, is not much exercised about the hassles of airport security, but then it never was much concerned with the dignity and convenience of ordinary Americans. Rather, it sees in homeland security a recrudescence of the Palmer raids of the 1920's:
Responding with a vengeance to terrorist attacks in U.S. cities, an attorney general unleashes the full fury of the U.S. Justice Department on new immigrants. He sets up a vast new spy network to investigate suspicious people and activities, arrests 6,000 in two months on little or no evidence.... It has the ring of familiarity, but it just goes to show that history, to some extent, repeats itself. This overwrought and ultimately shameful pursuit of immigrants actually took place more than 80 years ago....
This is from the ACLU's new report, "Civil Liberties After 9/11." It is a document of high absurdity. Reading it, one would almost suspect that President Bush has repealed the Bill of Rights, disbanded the judiciary, made Islam illegal in the United States, and for good measure cut all federal funding for higher education (except, perhaps, the Electoral College).
The report prescinds entirely from the fact that the 9/11 terrorists were, all of them, young immigrant men from Arab nations. Blindly rolling past this reality — like a suitcase passing through an unplugged x-ray machine — the ACLU can report in genuine alarm that "the government continues to focus suspicion on immigrants." Prominent in it list of its horrors the report tells of "a Muslim woman [who] was subjected to a humiliating body search after refusing to remove her headscarf at O'Hare Airport in Chicago" (much worse, one supposes, than the congressional medal of honor winner having to remove his pants). And it boasts that it is contacting foreign embassies and consulates to distribute its "'Know Your Rights' pamphlet in seven languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi." Forget its spurious conception of "civil liberties," the ACLU isn't even concerned about Americans!
Yet there is a way to quiet the ACLU's hysteria, keep our shoes on in public places (mostly, anyway), and honor the Constitution all at the same time: win the war, quickly and decisively. Capture the terrorists, shatter their networks, overturn the regimes that sponsor them — international coalition or not. George Bush seemed to understand this in his U.N. speech. Perhaps he was recalling another line of old Ben's: "God helps those that help themselves."