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On Point

Homeland Security: Security versus Liberty

by Austin Bay
Aug 14, 2002

This column is the last in a series of five.

It's always been easy to commit a street crime in America, for the simple reason that the government isn't a criminal cabal. The ubiquitous police and surveillance agencies typical of a dictatorship or other autocracy, in the course of crushing civil liberties like free speech and free association, tend to limit the elbow room muggers require -- unless, of course, the cops freelance as thugs.

Terrorists are street-killers writ large. Does assuring domestic security mean sacrificing civil liberty? Is that America's hard choice in the War on Terror?

By design, America is an experiment in human liberty. Day in day out, no other citizenry moves, speaks and spends so freely. Though Marx once mused that Americans would never accept the state coercion his system required, scads of Soviets thought there had to be a catch -- somewhere a hidden coercive mechanism behind America's facade of freedom simply had to exist. The autocrats didn't understand that pursuing the freedom of the open society was as much an American social habit as it was constitutional promise and political exercise.

The open society, however, is open to terrorist attack. Ease of movement, porous borders, a comparative lack of police surveillance, the Bill of Rights presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the general American dislike for intrusive, nosy individuals -- as well as intrusive, nosy government --make the United States an easy target.

At least, at first glance.

By design, America is a radical experiment in letting human beings use their own judgment. Sometimes it looks like a huge mistake. Bad judgments tend to fill the headlines. Drunk drivers, lying CEOs, bungling government bureaucrats, runaway teens, baseball commissioners halting all-star games ... welcome to the daily spotlight of foolishness.

It's another paradox, one the authoritarians don't quite get: America's capacity for self-critique -- indeed, the liberty to criticize -- makes it even stronger.

Our enemies hear our carping and kavetching as weakness, the signs of a near-chaotic system set to topple. Autocrats hear dissent and critique as threat -- they don't understand that it's an open society's process of repair and refinement. Hollywood excess, porn, TV soap operas, even nylons and high heels on a New York sidewalk -- to the theocratic fascists in Al Qaeda, these are the signs of cultural rot, godless mind candy and sexual permissiveness run amok. The Osama bin Ladens and Ayatolla Khomeinis of radical Islamism get so centered on the what they see as open sex in the open society you begin to wonder if these alleged desert puritans aren't a psychologist's textbook case of aversion-attraction. One of the 9-11 hijack teams hit a strip joint the night before their crime.

Soap operas and porn -- liberty means having bad choices.

But tally it up. The good judgments and good choices made by Americans surpass the bad by an exponential margin.

We've made excellent judgments since Sept. 11, 2001. The open society is no longer such an open target. America aroused and focused is a different quarry.

Is our liberty threatened by our new domestic security regimen? I don't think so. Real political freedom includes accountability.

Accountability's a tough word, a limiting word -- a word that shows American liberty has important boundaries. In the days following Sept. 11, pundits and politicians worried that contemporary, spoiled Americans would not sacrifice for the greater good, that after five months of inconvenience at the airport, we'd bag the War on Terror.

But spoiled, culturally gutted America didn't show. Instead, the accountable America of sound judgment and solid choices, the America of the world's most powerful economy, the world's cultural, intellectual, political and military leader -- that America took charge. That America understands liberty and security are always balanced by judgment and discipline. That America understands absolute security does not exist, but increased awareness, vigilance, better communication and common sense improve collective defense. That America understands there is no such thing as absolute liberty, but the great liberty we possess is the bedrock of our security, not a source of weakness.

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