Since the Boston Marathon bombings, we’ve seen a succession of polls quantifying the public’s willingness to trade freedom for security. Depending on what reports you read, our neighbors would accept everything from ubiquitous government surveillance to torture if it meant avoiding the next attack.
Thanks to the foresight of the Founders, though, our civil rights don’t depend on simple majority votes. They’re embedded in the Constitution, codified with phrases like “Congress shall make no law” and “no person shall be held” and “the accused shall enjoy the right”. Escape clauses along the lines of “as long as Congress thinks it’s a good idea” or “unless a poll says the public feels otherwise” are conspicuously absent.
To the authors of our liberties, “witch hunt” was not a metaphor. They knew what fear could do to an otherwise rational community and designed what they hoped would be a terror-resistant superstructure for a free nation. Like Ulysses bound to the mast, they constrained themselves and their posterity from easily succumbing to the siren call of a risk-free life watched over by an all-powerful State.
And the sirens are out in full force. Michael Bloomberg says, “Our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution have to change.” Circuit Judge Richard Posner predicted, “The Court can and doubtless will adjust the balance between privacy and security to reflect the increase in long-run threats to the lives of Americans.” These voices provide the rationalization for the FBI as it rewrites the Fifth Amendment and soften us up for the revelation of routine government monitoring of all phone calls. We’ve lost sight of what MIT’s Jeff Schiller told Wired a full two years before the attacks of 9/11:
Police work is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Where it’s easy we call it a police state.
Rather than Bloomberg and Posner, let us listen instead to people like security expert Bruce Schneier:
Terrorism isn’t primarily a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds, using the deaths of innocents and destruction of property as accomplices. When we react from fear, when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail, even if their attacks succeed.