Monday, August 23, 1999

Week of 08/23/1999

The Price Of Security
Is It Worth Losing Your Freedoms?
- by David Matthews 2

I remember a play I used to do when I was in high school that was an update of Lewis Caroll’s classic "Alice In Wonderland." Each of the characters in the play were based on fairy tale stories with more modern-day dilemmas. One such character was a very insecure egg by the name of Humpty Dumpty. But in this story, good ol’ Humpty already had his fall, they’ve already tried to put him back together, but he wasn’t really all there. He was paranoid about his security, always carrying guns, and ready to open fire against anyone who could to knock him off the wall.

I think about that rather bizarre play every time the issue of security comes up lately. How much security is enough for us?

We love to talk about those rose-colored days gone by when supposedly people didn’t have to lock their doors at night. My father used to talk that way when he was a police officer in Connecticut, especially after someone tried to break into our house one night. So he decided that it wasn’t enough that we had a noisy dog, and someone with a gun.. we needed a BIG dog. One that would strike fear and terror into whomever would try to break in. So my father got us a big German Shepherd dog, one that looked like it could eat you alive if you just looked at it wrong. (Mind you, this was back when German Shepherd dogs were THE bad dog of the day.)

The dog didn’t last. Not that it didn’t do its job, but rather because the dog struck fear and terror into the family as well. Shoes and clothing were destroyed. The dog made a mess anywhere it wanted to. And after taking a few swipes at my younger sister, my parents came to the conclusion that the dog had to go. The price of being "secure" in our home wasn’t worth it.

Nowadays, we hear about schools not being secure enough, especially in light of the school shootings. We’re told that we need to keep weapons out of the hands of kids, and to repel what we’re told are the sources of school violence. But what are the sources? That’s the real question. Everyone has their particular pet theories as to what causes violence - from guns to movies to music to the kinds of foods they eat. And thanks to the tragedies in the Columbine and Heritage schools, people are eager to exercise those pet theories in the name of "keeping kids safe."

One particular theory being exercised with great zeal is the suppression of what some consider to be "symbols" of violence, such as certain T-shirts or hockey jerseys. Wearing basic black, thanks to Columbine, is now on the "banned" list, as well as "duster" style jackets.

Now certain religious symbols are on the "banned" list in some schools. The Harrison County School Board in Mississippi voted to bar 11th-grader Ryan Green from wearing his Star of David necklace in school, saying that his religious symbol of Judaism could possibly - mind you that’s POSSIBLY - be viewed as a "gang" symbol. One school in Michigan tried to do the same thing to a confirmed Wiccan witch, which - contrary to the raving lunacies of Congressman Bob Barr - IS a legitimate religion. Of course, nobody has even thought about going after the Christian crucifixes. Again, the rationality was that the pentagram - the Wiccan symbol - could possibly be viewed as a "gang" symbol.

But "possibly" is good enough for Larry Johnson, chief of security for the Harrison County and Gulfport schools.

"You have to be proactive" he told The Sun Herald. "You have to neutralize things and let them know that school is a neutral place."

And proactive has been the watchword for many schools. Dress codes, codes of conduct, random searches, ID tags, locked gates, security cameras, armed guards… One has to wonder if we’re sending our children to school or to a state correctional facility. Nowadays the two terms seem interchangeable.

Clearly in the case of Ryan Green, or in the case of Crystal Seifferly - the self-professed Wiccan witch in Michigan - the issue of religious expression was given a backseat to the perceived threat of gang activity, which probably would have never happened if the symbols in question were Christian. Is this the kind of lesson you want your children to know? Bad enough that the separation of church and state is blurred by theocrats trying to shove the Ten Commandments and bible studies down everyone’s throat, but now to say that certain minority religious symbols are considered "threats" to security makes you wonder if the school system is being run by Grand Inquisitor Torquemada of Spain.

And heaven help you if you’re a student and you want to protest these changes! Jennifer Boccia and nine other students of Allen High School in Texas did just that last year by wearing black armbands. School officials suspended them, just because they wore the armbands! Mind you, these youngsters didn’t put up picket signs or hand out leaflets to the other students. All they did was wear a very simple symbol of protest, and school officials there reacted like Chinese soldiers in Tenement Square.

However, school isn’t the only battleground where "security" is at stake. Your personal privacy is yet another avenue up for grabs by the federal government. You probably heard of the campaign to get rid of the so-called "Know Your Customer" regulations that would have been imposed on all banks to keep a record of every customer and their transactions for the federal government. The Orwellian regulations were shelved, but many banks already have such policies in place at the behest of the Clinton Administration.

Your computer is also the target for government intrusion. The Clinton Administration is currently floating around draft legislation that would give law enforcement the authority to tap into your computer files without notifying you - completely circumventing the Fourth Amendment. This comes a few weeks after their announcement of a so-called watchdog network called the FIDNET, which many people have criticized as being needless and too intrusive. However, the Clinton Administration has said such measures were "needed" in the name of security.

So the question is.. is the price of security worth the surrender of your freedoms?

Let’s get brutally honest here.. it’s easy for government to argue any kind of measure is needed in the name of "security." And indeed, every tragedy has brought forth the cry for more and more precautions to keep us "safe."

When the Olympic games were disrupted in 1972 by a band of terrorists, security was increased exponentially every four years. However, all of the security measures in place did not stop a lone bomber from striking again in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. All those security measures did was put a greater inconvenience on those who lived in the general area of those events.

When TWA Flight 800 exploded over New York, security was tightened even further at airports across America, for fear that someone may have planted a bomb onboard. Later examination revealed the plane exploded because of an electrical spark igniting the fuel lines, but that didn’t curb the quest to make the airlines even "safer" from perceived threats.

When the federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up by two extremists, fear spread into any and all information concerning bombs and bomb-making. The Internet became a target for both Congress and the Clinton Administration as they sought to suppress any mention of how to make and build bombs. Even the constitutionally-protected right to question government now makes one a threat to the government, or so says Attorney General Janet Reno in a recent interview with 60 Minutes.

Of course many of the actions taken by government in these regards is nothing more than knee-jerk reactions, with the high emphasis on the "jerk" part. True, there is a lot of concern about copycat actions, especially when it involves public tragedies like school shootings. Following the massacre in Columbine, schools across America were besieged with bomb threats by opportunistic students, or even by some pathetic adults with nothing better to do. But while the bomb threats eventually died down, the crackdown against freedom is far more lasting.

And indeed there is method in the Clinton Administration’s maddening efforts to seize control of the Internet in the name of "security." Recent attacks against government web sites by hackers have made the Administration look impotent. And there is nothing more devastating to a narcissist like Bill Clinton than to be publicly humiliated!

There is truth in the cliché "once bitten, twice shy," except when it comes to government, it’s often "once bitten, twice zealous." Much like Humpty Dumpty after his fall, the government is ever cautious, ever more paranoid, and ever more insecure.

Worse yet is the devastating effect such security measures have in a country that claims to cherish freedom. What does it mean to be free when such freedoms can be removed on the excuse of being safe? What does it mean to have the freedom of religion when you’re told that when you express your religion it’s considered threatening? What does it mean when you’re told there’s such a thing as the freedom of expression, but not if you are trying to protest against the encroachment of your freedoms?

That is not to say that there aren’t legitimate threats to the general safety out there in the world. There are plenty of religious extremists, political zealots, and frustrated moralists out there to make anyone nervous. However, any concerns for the safety and security of the populace should be balanced out with the preservation of the rights and freedoms of its citizens. If we were to heed the word of every perceived threat, then the only freedoms we would have left would be the freedom to stay in our homes, living in fear of the world, and waiting to die from natural causes. Folks, that’s not freedom, that’s life in prison.

One should appreciate history a little bit better when it comes to how rights and freedoms have been abused under the banner of security. America just wasn’t forged because the British got tired us. It was forged because the British government cracked down on the rights of the colonists in the "interest" of security. It was because of the memory of those crackdowns that gave Benjamin Franklin reason to say that "They that give up essential liberty to attain temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

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