Addressing a Difficult Topic: Security vs. Liberty, Privacy, Freedom

Here is our food for thought. The topic is the core issue of the Bush administration and Post-9/11 American politics - the undermining of freedom and privacy in the name of protecting our country from attack.

I think it's important to first discuss a little bit the real threat of attack on America. First of all, how real is the threat? As it turns out, the thought amongst non-Bushies seems to be "not very". However, while the threat is not as great as our government would like us to believe, it is simultaneously true that it may actually be greater now than it was before we began our war on terror. According to a (likely non-scientific, but still potentially valid) study done by Mother Jones magazine, using the MIPT-RAND terrorism database,

"The rate of terrorist attacks around the world by jihadist groups and the rate of fatalities in those attacks increased dramatically after the invasion of Iraq. Globally there was a 607 percent rise in the average yearly incidence of attacks (28.3 attacks per year before and 199.8 after) and a 237 percent rise in the average fatality rate (from 501 to 1,689 deaths per year). A large part of this rise occurred in Iraq, which accounts for fully half of the global total of jihadist terrorist attacks in the post-Iraq War period. But even excluding Iraq, the average yearly number of jihadist terrorist attacks and resulting fatalities still rose sharply around the world by 265 percent and 58 percent respectively."

So what's the message here? Be afraid? No. The threat of terrorism in the US has NEVER been very high, by any stretch of the imagination. The chances of dying via terrorist attack, in this age of increased terror threat, is difficult to estimate. However, people have tried. If we were to assume an attack on the scale of 9/11 were to occur every year in America, an individual's odds of dying in one of those attacks in their lifetime would be roughly 1 in 1300. To give a little perspective, the odds of drowning or dying in a fire are 1 in 1100. Odds of being a victim of run-of-the-mill, every day homicide? 1 in 210. Heart disease? 1 in 3. But we still spend a laughably small portion of our national budget on the "War on Heart Disease", and police around the country complain about being woefully under-funded. Meanwhile, we continue to pour billions into Iraq in the interests of staving off this, relatively speaking, unimportant threat on our well-being.

However, humans are notoriously bad at using these sorts of ratios to effectively judge how much we should care about any given issue. First, consider that as our perceived levels of threat from a specific source increase, our ability to make rational decisions, specifically about policy on how to deal with that threat, decrease. Next, consider that the easier it is for us to come up with an example of a threat (anecdotal evidence), the more we perceive it to be a likely threat against us. Combine these two, and you have a country far too willing to begin subverting it's own freedoms in the interests of fighting off this perceived danger, no matter how real it might actually be (or not be).

But let's set that issue to the side, and focus on the core of the security vs. liberty problem. The seed article for this post makes a point of arguing that freedom and security are not mutually exclusive, and I absolutely agree. Additionally, they do not even require a reduction in one to have more of the other. They can, and almost must, exist simultaneously in order for either of them to really be worth the trouble. But in order to deal directly with what has become the national assumption about the relationship between these two, let's pretend that freedom and security are on opposite ends of a sliding scale, and we have to choose where to place our country.

Here is where we have our deepest divide. It has become clear since September 11, 2001, that the neo-conservative groups, the conservative groups, the right wing of our country, and especially the Bush White House, have thrown their lot into sliding that dial further and further toward the security end of the spectrum. The core assumption would seem to be that even if the American people are forced (even against their will) to give up some of their freedoms, that will ultimately be in the best interests of the people because they'll, at the very least, be able to remain alive. Ignoring the fact that in many ways these freedoms are working to ensure our safety in their own way, as life is anything but safe under a fascist regime (because let's face it, if you're not with them, you're against them... which is certainly a mindset I see becoming more prominent in America lately...), we have to consider whether a increased chance of losing that life is worth being able to live it more freely.

If we assume that security and freedom are contrary forces, then we find ourselves essentially stuck with a question which will sound something like this,

"Is the ideology of freedom, liberty, and privacy for all citizens more important than the lives of however many citizens may necessarily die, whether through attack, defense, or terrorism, as a result of not instituting protection policies that would undermine those ideologies?"

While that is an ugly way to phrase the question, and I know that politically a lot of people would hesitate to take a stand on either side of that question, it is one that we must address.

This is certainly not a NEW problem. It is one that seems to reach all the way back to Aristotle's writings on ethics. Ultimately, I think Aristotle would suggest we need to consider which of our two choices, security or liberty, provides the greater good for the greatest number of people. If we look purely at the numbers, a country of 350 million people (and growing daily) all allowed to enjoy their privacy, freedom to live how they wish, and the various liberties that we have been promised as citizens of our country seems to be the obvious choice. Even in the face of hundreds, or thousands, of deaths as a result of allowing that freedom to continue.

Really, we must assume that deaths will occur no matter how much security we institute (bad, assuming it also means reduction of freedom), but freedom (liberty, privacy) will always be used if they are available (good). So it seems that while we will never entirely eliminate the bad, nor can we even be sure that a lot of our actions would even have much effect, we can certainly be sure that allowing people those freedoms they would otherwise lose is going to inevitably allow for good. So not only will more people get more 'good' (the ethereal commodity discussed by Kant and Aristotle), but we can also be nearly 100% certain that movement toward freedom along our posited freedom-security scale will create more good. On the other hand, it seems that movement toward more security will inevitably reduce good, but may or may not actually decrease bad at the same time. I also don't think it's inappropriate to argue that while security could have the effect of reducing our chances of death, it also seems to simultaneously increase our levels of stress about our chances of dying. The manner in which this 'security' is pursued by our current administration includes a very powerful propaganda machine which is careful to assure that all Americans are deathly afraid of the disembodied, ever-present threat of terrorism. I would also be inclined to call that a 'bad'.

Certainly one could argue that freedoms can be used for bad things, but I think that's the point at which we must begin to rethink how far we are moving in that direction as well. Complete anarchy would likely lead to an increase in the odds of being murdered, as well as lesser evils like theft, assault, etc. There are obviously many more potential arguments on the side of security - if we can't feel secure, can we really feel free? Though again, do we really feel secure when we are? I would say our present situation seems to suggest the answer is 'not necessarily'. But, I think it's important to consider that I am not arguing that we should pursue either extreme-absolute freedom or absolute security. It just seems that past a certain point, the removal of freedoms no longer warrants the level of protection offered by the security.

When it comes to deciding where that middle ground is, where the proper point should be that we settle at, I feel it is important to err on the side of freedom rather than security. If we were talking about security from a more real, impending threat upon the lives of far more people, perhaps the dynamic would shift drastically. However, as we sit now, the threat of terrorism is being used as an excuse with a universal political adaptor, and it is not nearly as present as many would have us believe.

The bottom line is that on the national level, we must choose freedom of all above the lives of comparatively few. It's not a pretty thing to say, but unfortunately sometimes real answers don't agree with being socially polite.

And let's face it, we're killing ourselves in much more efficient and creative ways than any religious zealot is ever going to manage.

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