Freedom vs. Security
In late 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, The Economist and Shell Oil announced an essay competition with the subject: How much freedom should we trade for our security? Below is the essay I submitted. It was intended to be satire, but what I find astonishing now is how much of it has really come true. Of course, it didn’t win. (Here are the essays that did win.)
How much freedom should we trade for our security? We are faced with this question at a moment of crisis, but it also represents an opportunity. Perhaps now, confronted with the threat of terrorism, we can finally put to rest old ideas that have not only hampered our security, but have prevented us from attaining our proper development as a society.
Above all, it is the idea, expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the phrase “inalienable rights,” that we are called to overcome. The notion that rights are bestowed at birth, and cannot be traded for security or anything else, has repeatedly placed our safety in peril. By declaring that individual freedom has an absolute, one might even say metaphysical basis (“endowed by our Creator,” in the quaint words of the Declaration), this concept of rights constantly impedes the effective functioning of police and military authorities that are charged with keeping us secure. Legal strategies that attempt to circumvent this idea have only partly succeeded. We need a reevaluation of principles rather than a mere tinkering with machinery. The terrorist attacks have made clear that we need to change our thinking in a fundamental way.
The “freedom” of dissent, the “freedom,” even, to overthrow the government, was undoubtedly important to a group of eighteenth century planters justifying a break with their colonial parent. But we live in a different world now. What the majority of people find important is the freedom of economic well being, i.e., the freedom to buy and own what we want, and to live in a degree of material comfort unknown to our forefathers. This way of life is provided by our free market system, with its corporations providing goods and services not only to the West but to the entire world, and which has made the United States economy the envy of all.
Terrorism represents a direct attack on that freedom. The terrorists couldn’t have been clearer in their choice of targets. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon symbolized our economic and military power. It is here, then, that our freedom lies, not in abstract, disruptive concepts of inalienable rights. It is our duty to protect, at all costs, what we truly value. When people are insecure about their safety, the market becomes insecure. What possible political freedom could compensate for the loss of our material prosperity? We need only look at the underdeveloped world, that supposedly won its freedom from the colonial powers, to know the answer.
We know, then, that terrorism must be eliminated. But in order to do so, we need to dismantle those antiquated features of the American Constitution that are based on outmoded ideas concerning civil rights. These traditions only make it easier for terrorist or subversive groups to escape detection, while adding nothing to our essential quality of life.
Of what value is dissent in the modern world? We may bravely ask this question, in defiance of certain sacred cows, because our very existence is at stake. Difference of opinion is safely expressed within the parameters set by our governmental leaders and by the media. The people are as well informed in this respect as they want to be. But dissent in a wider sense – as a questioning of our system itself, of the legitimacy of government and corporate practice, or of the proper exercise of authority to ensure national security either by war or police action – has no use in the modern world, other than to create disunity, encourage unrest, and help to foster the very conditions under which terrorism can thrive. It could be argued, however, that the opportunity for dissent offers a necessary release valve for antisocial tendencies that could not otherwise be satisfied or controlled. I recognize some justice in this observation, and I expect the “right” of dissent to be preserved, at least in appearance – but with the important proviso that groups and individuals expressing dissent outside the mainstream need to be kept under rigorous surveillance by the police, so that any movement towards disruptive actions, such as demonstrations or political organizing outside of accepted institutions, can be immediately nipped in the bud by the authorities.
The U.S. government has already shown considerable wisdom by taking a hard line towards immigrants, and by avoiding the loopholes of the civilian justice system through military tribunals. By arguing in terms of war rather than crime, our leaders have shown the way towards a new understanding of freedom and security. War is no longer a temporary condition from which we can retreat into an illusion of disengagement. The rise of terrorism signals the beginning of a war that is essentially continuous. In order to maintain the economic well being that constitutes our true freedom, the so-called political freedoms need to be sacrificed. The government must be gradually militarized, and the capacity for surveillance and control of subversive elements must be increased tenfold in order to eliminate terrorism. In addition, the empowerment of the police authorities, at the national and local level, must continue even after terrorism is defeated, in order to ensure that this peril can never threaten us again. To this end, the current trend towards paramilitary training of police forces must continue and become more pervasive. Ultimately, our political institutions will need to take on more of the character of military government rather than “representative” government, which has proven inefficient and has, moreover, lost the faith of the people. The military retains its popularity, as well it should, since it represents the best of us – those who selflessly serve the nation in order to preserve our freedom. We can be confident that our economic growth will become more robust after the legalistic impediments to rightful authority are finally removed.
There is no need to give our institutions new names. A certain amount of continuity with tradition helps foster a sense of comfort. The old paradigm of political rights is already practically obsolete in mainstream society, where people have enough common sense to know that our culture will simply break down without the cooperation, expertise, and financial clout of multinational corporations. No clearer evidence could be provided for this than the almost palpable anxiety and concern that is generally expressed when the stock market is going through a downturn. We know that our true security depends on these markets, and therefore our trust lies in the successful men and women who run our economy. To question these institutions, or actively oppose them, is alien to the desires and concerns of the average person, and to allow fringe elements to do so is a luxury that has become increasingly unacceptable. Now, just as the people trust our economic system, so they can gradually grow to have more trust in our governmental system, provided that the state takes the vigorous steps needed to prosecute the war abroad and suppress dissent at home. Terrorism, along with other revolutionary ideologies, is fostered by ideas of fundamental social change, ideas which are delusory and only serve to agitate people. We must let go of the remnants of these ideas in our own traditions if we are to defeat them when advocated by others.
It might seem wiser to simply take incremental steps towards increased police and military power without bothering to reassess our philosophical assumptions. In the short run, this may be true. But as the struggle continues, the clarity of our thinking will become just as vital to our security as any practical measures. Terrorists will seize on our weaknesses in order to undermine our society. That’s why it will become necessary, sooner or later, to repudiate the Jeffersonian doctrine of inalienable rights. As long as “liberty” – individual independence involving the freedom to actively oppose our system by word and deed – is seen as inherent in the human condition, it will continue to be invoked by our enemies in an effort to protect themselves and destroy us. This old concept has taken on a new guise in the idea of “human rights” that extend beyond the boundaries of America and the West, applying to all people regardless of their nationality or economic condition. In practice, this notion has always been used as a challenge to our economic power and military presence.
The truth is that freedom is a privilege, not a right. It is bestowed on us by those who possess legitimate power, won through economic risk and initiative. Middle class citizens, who constitute the majority in America, know that there is nothing to fear from the just exercise of their leaders’ power, because they participate in the benefits of our system, the greatest the world has ever seen. The claims to power made by advocates of civil and human rights are illegitimate because they depend on birth, on the mere condition of being human, rather than on effort and merit. Their “freedom” is illusory because it leads only to misery, as evidenced by the failed experiments of communism. The civil liberties allowed in the West are fragile luxuries, and should be taken away when they represent a danger to our security. September 11th showed us that this time has indeed come, the time to “face facts.” At the present time we need to carefully monitor all dissent, and as much as possible maintain the secrecy that is indispensable in this effort. If terrorists attack again, as our leaders seem sure they will, martial law will provide the necessary transition towards a future organization of society that will satisfy both our need for security and our freedom to buy and own the possessions that we need in order to live a happy and comfortable life. That is the freedom that counts. The danger is that we will lose this freedom, and our security, in a vain attempt to preserve the illusion of political freedom.
Ultimately there is no real freedom that is independent of national security. That, as uncomfortable as it feels to those living in the past, is the truth we need to embrace. How much freedom, then, should we trade for our security? The answer is simple: all of it.