Monday, September 24, 2001

Week of 09/24/2001

At What Price Freedom?
- by David Matthews 2

"O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength! But it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant." -
William Shakespeare

There is an old Monty Python skit where a man enters a store that claims to have the largest assortment of cheeses in the land. He then asks the proprietor for a sample of his favorite brand of cheese, to which he was told that they didn’t have that particular cheese in stock. The skit then goes into a rather lengthy list of different cheeses, but each time the proprietor of the store says they don’t have it.

At one point, the man asks the proprietor "Not much of a cheese shop, is it?"

Then came the reply, "It’s the finest in the country!"

I sort of have that bizarre reply in my mind when we talk about the subject of freedom, especially given the insanity following the September 11th attacks by terrorists.

Oh yes, America IS the land of freedom. Ask any American, they’ll tell you! In fact, we have SO much freedom that a certain President once said we actually have TOO much of it! (Here’s a hint: he came from Hope, Arkansas.)

And that sentiment is shared by plenty of people who think that being the freest land in the world may not be such a good thing. Just ask the 19 or so terrorists that turned four of our commercial airplanes into guided missiles.

Or better yet, just ask the people who are putting out polls that suggest that we should ignore the warnings of Benjamin Franklin and give up our essential liberties for some added degree of temporary safety and security.

Of course, there will always be people who will say that we NEED to suspend some liberties. After all, they claim, we are in a state of WAR. Lives are at stake! Our way of life is at stake! Everything our parents and our grandparents fought and DIED for is at stake! Sacrifices must be made so that future generations can enjoy the freedoms we have!

Well let’s get brutally honest here… our freedoms have been under attack ever since this country was formed. President George W. Bush even admitted so in his address to Congress and the nation on September 20th. "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war," he said.

The biggest threat to the freedoms we take for granted, though, does not come from outside our country. It is not some foreign enemy who is hell-bent on destroying everything we have for the sake of advancing their own extremist views. Those kinds of threats we can point at and rally against with relative ease.

No, the biggest threat to the freedoms we take for granted comes from INSIDE this great country of ours.

I’m not talking about spies or sympathizers or any kind of Joe McCarthy-like conspiracy groups. I’m talking about plain, ordinary people. The common man. Hard-working Americans, housewives, ministers, social workers, veterans, pacifists, people from all walks of life who really do take our freedoms for granted, and do not blink when they feel that those freedoms should be limited, or even removed, at a drop of a hat.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US Government ordered the arrest and confinement of all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. Now, this was nothing different than what the Nazis did to the Jewish people five years earlier. In fact, it was done under same excuses as the Nazis used… for safety and security. And although the real extent of the Nazi horror wasn’t known until after the war, the detainment and relocation of those so-called "undesirables" was public knowledge.

But Americans, for the most part, didn’t raise a finger in protest to what our own government was doing to our own people. They simply nodded in agreement with the government and went right on with their delusion that America was still the freest country in the world.

You would’ve expected the judicial system to at least step in and object to the internment of our own citizens. However, the courts instead ruled in 1944 that it was perfectly okay for our government to arrest and detain indefinitely all people of Japanese descent in the name of national security. They were lock-step in sync with the rest of the government.

Oh, yes, the US Government apologized, and even handed out some money to those who were still alive when the checks were eventually issued… forty years after the fact. But that action alone symbolizes how quickly we are willing to give up that which we take for granted in the name of "security."

And it doesn’t take a day of tragedy and an act of pure evil to convince people to give up those freedoms. Sometimes all it takes is a newspaper article, or a spot on the local TV news, or the cover story of Time Magazine. Sometimes it takes just one person who sees or hears something they don’t like and uses it as their rallying cry. "We have too many freedoms," they cry out, "and we must trim them for the good of our society! We must trim them for the good of our children, and our families, and our way of life!"

Look at all the damage that was done in the name of our so-called "War on Drugs". Our Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections were gutted in the name of that so-called "war". Asset forfeiture laws were so broadly written that it turned police and prosecutors into modern-day pirates, searching the land for "bounty" to loot. Police, prosecutors, and legislators, all "high" on the drug called power, were eager to chip away at our protections in the name of added security.

And remember how the government claimed that these broad asset forfeiture laws were supposed to be the exception and not the rule? Well, they quickly and quietly found ways to get around that bit too. Now, in some cities, the police can take your car if they think you’re associating with certain groups of people. They can take your home if they suspect you’re using it to serve alcohol to minors. And until the US Supreme Court stepped in and stopped this practice, the police in Chicago had the right to arrest you in front of your own home under the charge of "loitering"! All of that sprang forth from a supposed one-time "exception" to combat the "scourge" of drugs.

It doesn’t matter if it is done under the phony banner of "family values" or in the name of "political correctness", we willingly surrender our freedoms. We let politicians and special interest groups whittle away our freedoms to decide for ourselves how we want to express ourselves, who we want to see, what kind of music we want to listen to, what programs to watch on television, what kind of job we want to have, and whether or not we will be free from government intrusion.

One of the biggest ideas being pushed after the September 11th horror is some kind of high-tech national ID card. Government officials say we NEED this so we can spot who is "supposed" to be in this country and who is not.

Every time I hear that idea being mentioned, though, I keep on remembering the old World War II movies about some Nazi soldier with a machine gun barking out "PAPERS!" Maybe some of the supporters of this program can explain me the difference without handing out the usual retort of "We’re not like the Nazis!"

Besides, don’t we already have a "national ID" program in the form of Social Security cards? Aren’t visitors from other countries required to have visas and so-called "green cards"? How effective have THESE things been in controlling who gets into America? Not much, if you think about it. Some of the terrorists from the September 11th horror were here on expired or questionable visas.

So how would putting in some extra form of national ID change things? It wouldn’t… unless you were willing to allow checkpoints where such ID would HAVE to be displayed. And not just at airports and federal buildings, but also office buildings, stores, malls, any kind of public gathering that future terrorists MIGHT make a target. And to make sure everyone complied (because there would be a few who would protest), you would have to have officers (read "troopers") who would have arrest powers. And because some of those people who might protest might resist arrest, those officers would have to be armed, right?

Suddenly that old vision of an armed soldier barking out "PAPERS!" is not too crazy, is it? All that would be missing is the German accent.

Adding some extra kind of identification does not and would never stop those who are hell-bent on causing death and destruction. Just like Social Security cards, birth certificates, and baseball tickets, these too can be duplicated for those with the determination and the tools.

Nor is the idea of censoring speech in the name of "security" any better. As much as I would rally against the venomous tongues of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, I would also not support their forced silence. Quite the contrary. Even though I will rally against their theocratic and moralist ideas, I would urge them to go right on speaking their mind and showing to the whole world not only their true nature, but to also demonstrate what the freedom of speech IS all about. It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies in the history of America for people like this commentator to support the free speech of those who would argue to take that right away.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for going after the SOB’s who committed, orchestrated, knowingly aided, and otherwise assisted the terrorist attacks of September 11th. And some sacrifices will have to be made in the coming conflict as we do go ahead and hunt those bastards down. In fact, some of those sacrifices are already being made. But it is a question of what other kind of sacrifices would have to be made that is giving people like myself pause.

In our quest for revenge and our zeal to see the bad guys be served justice, would we be willing to give up the very freedoms that make America so great? Would we be willing to freely do what a band of terrorists could NEVER do, namely destroy everything that makes America so great in the first place? History has shown us that it would be very easy for us to do just that.

What good is it to claim that America is the freest nation on Earth if that freedom can be whittled away in fear and terror? That’s the question civil libertarians and pro-freedom supports such as myself have to ask… because if we don’t, then all of what our founding fathers went through, and all of what our predecessors fought and died for would be for nothing.

It’s good to be determined to see justice served, but we need to do it with a perspective of what America is all about, and realize that there is a line that must not be crossed. Once that line is crossed, then we become just like the very terrorists we abhor. And if we do that, then the terrorists have won.

No comments: