“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” — William Pitt, 1783
In the wake of last Tuesday’s tragic events — the death, the destruction and the fear that comes with it — what are we willing to give up, what are we willing to become, and which freedoms will we willingly surrender for the illusion of safety? These deaths, we are told, could have been prevented, if only the FBI had known where to look, if only the internet didn’t provide such a haven for violent free speech, if only our immigration policies were more strict, if only the American people were a little more willing to let Big Brother into their lives and their homes.
Or maybe talk of Big Brother is just leftist paranoia. What good are civil liberties anyway, if they stand in the government’s way, if they just make the work of tracking terrorists more difficult? Congress wants to issue national identification cards for citizens and noncitizens alike, but nobody at Metafilter, where I discovered the story, seemed too upset about that. If it will make the streets safe and keep us alive when we board our planes and go to work…well, where’s the harm?
I don’t know. It’s a slippery slope. While I think the parallels he draws to the Reichstag Fire in pre-Nazi Germany are probably an overreaction, John Perry Barlow (of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) is right when he says that “nothing could serve those who believe that American ‘safety’ is more important than American liberty better than something like this.”
Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it more than two hundred years ago: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”