By Bryan Hyde
With another renewal of the PATRIOT Act recently, it’s clear that the debate still centers over whether the act goes too far or doesn’t go far enough to protect against terrorism.
A better question would be: Is the proper role of government to keep us safe or to keep us free?
At stake is whether national security–namely those measures undertaken to protect the government and its agents–should necessarily trump the personal freedoms of the populace.
Justification for expanding government powers is found in tales of implacable foes at home and abroad preparing to slaughter innocent Americans unless we collectively give government more power to scrutinize our lives in order to “protect” us.
When the issue is framed in these terms, many Americans will lend their support to continued government-sponsored waterboarding, domestic surveillance, extraordinary rendition and aggressive warfare against nations that may someday pose an actual threat.
While we’re hyper-focused on official enemies abroad who supposedly “hate us for our freedom”, we fail to recognize the opportunists here at home who are successfully depriving us of our freedoms in the name of security.
As evil as true terrorists may be, they still lack the necessary infrastructure, manpower, and popular support to control even the third world countries they infest, much less the power to invade, enslave or conquer America.
Despite being portrayed as nearly superhuman, Al Qaeda and other terror groups must use attention-grabbing threats and isolated episodes of brutal violence to try to force their way into our consciousness. Subtlety really isn’t one of their strong points.
The tiny handful of radical Islamists which engaged in terrorism have shown a preference for coming at us head-on in easily recognizable attacks like 9/11, the U.S.S Cole and the African embassy attacks in 1998. Attacks which, in the short term, tend to unify and rouse the populace much like the “sleeping giant” that Admiral Yamamoto acknowledged after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in WWII.
A more likely, though less obvious, threat is found in the actions of policy makers who, under the color of law are slowly but surely erecting the framework of a police state here at home. This goal is being accomplished through steady, incremental expansion of the state’s power at the expense of essential individual liberties.
This is done by focusing the security state’s attention inward on American citizens through the measures like the Patriot Act, Military Commissions Act and Keep America Safe Act.
These acts expand the federal government’s police powers to fight terrorism by allowing it to scrutinize virtually every American citizen as a potential terrorist. They provide cover for the state to engage in warrantless eavesdropping, denial of due process, etc., in order to keep tabs on us.
What these policies are intended to accomplish, in reality, is to increase the security of the state and its agents, not the security of the average American.
Think back a couple of years to when a tiny Cessna aircraft wandered off course and flew over the nation’s capitol. Remember the official response? News footage showed virtual citywide panic on the part of government as select leaders were whisked to “secure locations” while the mere “people” who worked in D.C. were herded about like frightened cattle by officers in battle gear.
It was an ideal demonstration of just who the State is willing to protect and who is likely to be on their own. From the TSA shakedown at the airport to rifle-toting officers patrolling public transportation, many of the obvious shows of force are simple window dressing for the sake of demonstrating that the state is “really in charge.”
That’s good for the state, but not so good for the prospect of perpetuating liberty for future generations.
Unlike the shadowy terror groups abroad, the security state actually has at its disposal the power to regulate virtually every aspect of our lives by piling on increasingly inflexible rules designed to solidify its control. And it’s cheered on by fearful individuals who are enabling the very entity that is quietly fitting them for their restraints.
The fearful don’t care what becomes of liberty so long as it’s the state promises to protect them from the unknown.
In truth, most of us are only touched or affected by terror to the degree that we allow fear of it to direct our lives or our thinking. Fearful people are generally more easily controlled and more easily persuaded to exchange their freedoms for promises of security. This is especially true when those promises come from an entity that knows precisely where they live, how much they make, what they buy, what they read, etc.
Terrorists can’t seize our assets; deny us the ability to travel, or prevent us from obtaining gainful employment. But government has the power to do all this and more at its pleasure.
A decade later, people still fixate on the loss of those 3,000 souls who perished on 9/11, but fail to comprehend that we lose that many Americans each and every month to the predations of homegrown criminals.
The statistical probability of being a terrorist victim is smaller than the prospect of dying of a spider bite or being struck by lightning. The odds are greater that a person will win the lottery than they will be a terror victim, yet millions of Americans still live their lives in fear and willingly surrender essential liberties.
It is highly unlikely that we will ever lose our freedoms to al Qaeda or any other radicalized sect of Islam because they simply lack the capability to physically invade, overcome and conquer America. But there exists a very real hazard in our own government’s response to security by which it justifies expanding and consolidating its power and control over the American people at the price of their freedoms.
The proper role of our government is to keep us free, not to keep us safe. It’s not a choice of having one or the other.
It is in the nature of government–any government–to expand beyond its upper limits. This is why the founders crafted a limited federal government with vertical and horizontal separation of powers as well as checks and balances and a Bill of Rights. Those limits on government power were not only intended for when the sun was shining, but for dark and foreboding days when men would be tempted to set them aside for expediency.
Anytime we’re told that it’s a “necessity” for government power to be expanded or “terrorists will kill us all”, it simply demonstrates that the faces and names may have changed, but the tactics of the tyrant never do.
Endlessly pointing to the events of 9/11 as justification for expanding government power doesn’t change the fact that capability is what really counts when determining a threat. And the capability of terrorists to destroy liberty can never approach that of a government that refuses to abide by its limits.
So who, in the long run, is more likely to succeed in separating us from our freedoms?
The one who openly comes out against you or the one who surreptitiously takes your freedoms while claiming to be your protector?
Bryan blogs at Hydeologue.com. He and his wife Becky are raising their six children in Cedar City, Utah.