Saturday, March 03, 2007

Liberty or security?

"Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." Benjamin Franklin

Comedian and soon to be radio talk show host Dennis Miller appeared on daytime TV show "The View" a few days ago and was quoted a paraphrased version of the above by Rosie O'Donnel in reference to the Patriot Act, which she attributed to "taking away our freedom."

I could spend a lot of time arguing that the Left's ranting against the Patriot Act is unfounded hysteria, but since I want to talk about something else, suffice it to say that I have yet to read of a single abuse of the act. Does anyone doubt for a second that if the popular media could find such an abuse, it would haunt the front page of the New York Times and be the lead story on every major news cast for weeks on end, just as the Abu Ghraib scandal was?

What concerns me more is the way this Franklin quote has been used ad infinitum by the Left to argue against every security measure imposed by the government since 9/11. At it's heart it's a sham argument, an all-or-nothing way of thinking; one of the slogans endlessly repeated that at first blush has the sense of being profound, but which falls apart at the slightest prodding of reason.

Applying Rosie's logic in this instance, I might ask her if she has then abandoned her rabid advocacy for gun control. Aren't gun control laws, at least in theory (if not in fact), a case of giving up a liberty--the liberty to own a handgun--to gain security? How about speed limits on our roads; is she against those as well? Aren't they constraining my liberty to drive as I might like?

Consider another popular slogan repeated like a mantra of "progressive" thought: "I'm against all forms of censorship!" Seems reasonable enough on its surface--freedom of speech and all that. Until one asks the question, "so you think child pornography should be allowed?" And then, of course, in the clear light of logic it is instantly apparent that it's no longer of question of whether there ought to be censorship--of course there should!--but rather to what degree should society censor.

Move away from childish platitudes such as these and you realize that all such questions are a negotiation of competing desires: the desire to act freely, the desire to be safe, the desire to speak one's mind, the desire to retain our children's innocence. All our laws, our social mores, our civilization itself--all civilizations for that matter--is a negotiated, reasoned system of constraints--limits, if you will--on individual liberty, evolved over millennia of human experience, to protect us against the chaos and anarchy of absolute freedom.

Now that I think about it, that would make a pretty good horror story. A comet passes close to Earth and suddenly everyone feels no more compunction to obey any limits on their freedom. Everyone all at once begins to do exactly what he or she want, when they want... Come to think of it, that's a little too horrible to contemplate.

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