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, forthe simple reason that the government isn't a criminal cabal. The ubiquitouspolice and surveillance agencies typical of a dictatorship or otherautocracy, in the course of crushing civil liberties like free speech andfree association, tend to limit the elbow room muggers require -- unless, ofcourse, the cops freelance as thugs.
Terrorists are street-killers writ large. Does assuring domesticsecurity mean sacrificing civil liberty? Is that America's hard choice inthe War on Terror?
By design, America is an experiment in human liberty. Day in dayout, no other citizenry moves, speaks and spends so freely. Though Marx oncemused that Americans would never accept the state coercion his systemrequired, scads of Soviets thought there had to be a catch -- somewhere ahidden coercive mechanism behind America's facade of freedom simply had toexist. The autocrats didn't understand that pursuing the freedom of the opensociety was as much an American social habit as it was constitutionalpromise and political exercise.
The open society, however, is open to terrorist attack. Ease ofmovement, porous borders, a comparative lack of police surveillance, theBill of Rights presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the generalAmerican 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 humanbeings use their own judgment. Sometimes it looks like a huge mistake. Badjudgments tend to fill the headlines. Drunk drivers, lying CEOs, bunglinggovernment bureaucrats, runaway teens, baseball commissioners haltingall-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, thesigns of a near-chaotic system set to topple. Autocrats hear dissent andcritique as threat -- they don't understand that it's an open society'sprocess of repair and refinement. Hollywood excess, porn, TV soap operas,even nylons and high heels on a New York sidewalk -- to the theocraticfascists in Al Qaeda, these are the signs of cultural rot, godless mindcandy and sexual permissiveness run amok. The Osama bin Ladens and AyatollaKhomeinis of radical Islamism get so centered on the what they see as opensex in the open society you begin to wonder if these alleged desert puritansaren't a psychologist's textbook case of aversion-attraction. One of the9-11 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 byAmericans surpass the bad by an exponential margin.
We've made excellent judgments since Sept. 11, 2001. The opensociety is no longer such an open target. America aroused and focused is adifferent 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 thatshows American liberty has important boundaries. In the days following Sept.11, pundits and politicians worried that contemporary, spoiled Americanswould not sacrifice for the greater good, that after five months ofinconvenience at the airport, we'd bag the War on Terror.
But spoiled, culturally gutted America didn't show. Instead, theaccountable America of sound judgment and solid choices, the America of theworld's most powerful economy, the world's cultural, intellectual, politicaland military leader -- that America took charge. That America understandsliberty and security are always balanced by judgment and discipline. ThatAmerica understands absolute security does not exist, but increasedawareness, vigilance, better communication and common sense improvecollective defense. That America understands there is no such thing asabsolute liberty, but the great liberty we possess is the bedrock of oursecurity, not a source of weakness.