The recent bombings in London have raised to a fever pitch the willingness to trample on individual civil liberties.
“Actions that governments take to fight terrorism are totally justified because protecting life is a lot more important than protecting civil liberties.” — Octavia Nasr, Arab View: “Enough, enough” (July 8, 2005) CNN.
To a certain extent, this is an understandable view. If you cannot live, then it matters not whether you could have lived free. And I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I don’t both understand and — again, to a certain extent — agree.
On the other hand, there are limits. Actions taken and legislation passed in the name of “safety” must be measured, thought about, seriously and fully considered.
This is particularly true in America right now. I would suggest that since at least the McCarthy Era, Americans have lived largely free of the types of pressures on civil liberties that make it possible to really appreciate freedom — and to understand what it’s like not to have it. A fish does not realize that it swims in water; we don’t often think about oxygen until something happens to deprive us of it. So it has been with freedom in America; it is no surprise that we don’t understand what it’s like to be without it. Most of us can’t comprehend what it would mean to live without our civil liberties. Certainly there have always been some of us — and not just Libertarians — who have longed for more freedom. But, by and large, America has been a fortunate country, particularly concerning our freedoms.
This has made it difficult, if not impossible, for us to understand what it means to live in a society without civil liberties. No longer can we appreciate the depth of commitment and feeling in the words of Benjamin Franklin when he said:
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. — Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor, November 11, 1755. — The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, (Ed. Leonard W. Labaree 1963) vol. 6, p. 242.
The Founders of our nation understood this. They also understood — in ways we’ve yet to learn — the terror of living in a world where soldiers could take over your home, without warning, at any moment. They lived with searches and seizures that few today see anywhere except on televivion — and even then, it’s clear that we, today usually require warrants (but that’s changing already). They had experienced having their provisions, their food, horses, cattle and other necessities of life, yanked from them without notice. And for those who need more detail to appreciate what they went through — this was before the days of Wal-Mart and Super K-Mart and Save-Mart. These folk didn’t have the luxury of going down to the market to re-stock.
Our forebears fought hard for their liberty. And not just for theirs, but for ours.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. — The Constitution of the United States of America (adopted 1787, ratification completed June 21, 1788).
“Posterity” is a word not much in common usage anymore. It refers to us, the descendants by birth and adoption, of the Founders of this Great Nation. And by “adoption,” I refer to those who have immigrated here and become citizens. You might think that they have adopted America, but it’s really a two-way street; our forebears, through our Constitution, adopted them as well.
I often encourage people to read the Constitution. In the Unspun™ store, it’s possible to buy a bumper-sticker and mousepad I designed which says “Real Patriots Read the Constitution,” with the words set against a background of the American flag. I worry about what our country is becoming, but I’m mostly proud of what we’ve been. That’s why not long ago, I persisted so much on the issue of Club One’s treatment of the American flag. I don’t subscribe to the view that has occasionally been spoken to me: “America, Love It or Leave It.” I like to point out that the proof of my love of America is that I would say, “America: Love It & Fix It.” When you love someone, or something, you work for their betterment; you don’t abandon them.
But what I was saying is that I encourage people to read the Constitution. In the links I provide to it in my various articles, if you hoover over the link, you should see a title pop up that says, “U.S. Constitution: READ IT! IT’S SHORT!” And it is short. Most of us could read it without too much difficulty in one sitting.
And the beauty of that is that we gain a deeper understanding of how freedom is supposed to work. Some of us might stop complaining about how the Courts operate, if we understood how the Founders intended them to operate. Some of us might stop complaining about the fact that the majority doesn’t always “rule” if they understood that it was set up this way deliberately.
But, more importantly, we might gain a deep appreciation for the genius of a people who — in the midst of suffering and oppression greater than we, their Posterity, have ever known — could say, as Patrick Henry did:
Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death! — Patrick Henry, Speech to Virginia colonists which lead them to join the American Revolution (March 23, 1775) The History Place.