Freedom for Safety

An old trade -- and a useless one


Amid the mad, horrific carnage of 9/11—amid the planes screaming into office buildings and cornfields; amid the last-minute phone calls by doomed innocents to loved ones; amid the victims so desperate that they dove from the heights of the World Trade Center to the pavement below (what nightmare thoughts must have shot through their minds in that all too brief yet interminable fall to Ground Zero?); amid the billowing cloud of ash that smothered Manhattan and the rest of the country like a volcanic eruption of unmitigated human suffering; amid the heroism of plane passengers and firemen and cops and neighbors; amid the crush of steel and concrete and glass that flattened 220 stories into a pile barely 50 feet tall—amid the 3,000 deaths that day, something else died too.

By nightfall, it seemed, we had changed from a nation that placed a uniquely high value on privacy and freedom to one that embraced security and safety as first principles. Of course we swapped freedom for safety. Just look again at those people jumping from the twin towers to understand why 78 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup/University of Oklahoma poll favored trading civil liberties for "security" (and why 71 percent supported a national ID card too). Never mind that the trade hasn?t made us safer, or that it erodes the freedom that we say is precisely what the terrorists hate about us.

Within days of the attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed Congress to pass expansive anti-terrorism legislation that was a lawman?s wish list (and not very different from the regular requests made by lawmen before 9/11). We must, implored the man who had redirected FBI efforts away from counterterrorism and back toward battling drugs and kiddie porn, make it easier for cops and feds and spies to get the drop on suspects, broaden the definition of and increase the penalties for money laundering, impose new restrictions on immigration, and on and on.

On October 26 President Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act, an acronym for a law so ludicrously named that it sounds like Thomas Pynchon parodying George Orwell: the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other critics noted, the legislation ran to 342 pages and made major changes to over a dozen statutes that had limited government surveillance of citizens. We can assume that many legislators and their staffers, in the time-honored tradition, didn?t read the text before casting their votes. Likewise, it will be years, not just months, before the act?s full implications are clear.

The USA PATRIOT Act is a synecdoche for the freedom-for-safety swap. Among many other things, it sanctioned roving wiretaps (which allow police to track individuals over different phones and computers) and spying on the Web browsers of people who are not even criminal suspects. It rewrote the definitions of terrorism and money laundering to include all sorts of lesser and wider-ranging offenses. More important, as EFF underscored, "In asking for these broad new powers, the government made no showing that the previous powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to spy on U.S. citizens were insufficient to allow them to investigate and prosecute acts of terrorism." Nothing that?s emerged in the past year contradicts that early assessment.

"We?re likely to experience more restrictions on personal freedom than has ever been the case in this country," pronounced Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O?Connor last year after visiting Ground Zero. So we have, in ways large and small, profound and trivial. The worst part of the freedom-for-safety swap is that it?s never a done deal; the safety providers are endless hagglers, always coming back for more. This fall?s major homeland security legislation, unfinished at press time, will doubtless renew the negotiations.

Who knows where it will end? Freedom and privacy rarely, if ever, disappear in one fell swoop. In just a year, we?ve become accustomed to unnamed "detainees" being held in secret by the Department of Justice (and to the DOJ refusing to comply with state and federal court rulings to release the names of suspects); to the possibility of equally secret "military tribunals" (it?s all right—they won?t be used against U.S. citizens, except maybe "bad apples" like dirty bomb suspect Jose Padilla, and wasn?t he a gang member anyway?); to state and federal agencies? dragging their feet on releasing documents legally available through open government laws; and to legislators such as Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) constantly pushing the limits of the USA PATRIOT Act. (DeWine wants to allow the FBI to wiretap legal immigrants on the weakest "suspicion" of criminal activity.)

We?ve become trained to show up hours earlier to airports and to shuffle passively through security checkpoints, to unbuckle our pants and untuck our shirts, to hold our feet up in the air while agents wave wands over our shoes, to surrender nail clippers at the gate or just travel without them, to grin and bear it while Grandma?s walker gets the once-over. (Who even remembers the relative ease of air travel pre-9/11—much less before the mid-?90s, when we first started showing picture IDs as a condition of flying?) We?ve already started to ignore the ubiquitous surveillance cameras like the ones that watched over us as we celebrated the Fourth of July on the Mall in Washington, D.C. We?ve learned to mock a never-ending series of proposals such as the infamous Operation TIPS and plans for beefing up the old Neighborhood Watch program into a full-blown "national system for…reporting suspicious activity," both of which are moving forward in modified form despite widespread hooting.

Has any of this made us safer? Not from our government, which has done little to earn our trust over the years, especially when it comes to law enforcement. And not from terrorists, either. If they?ve been cowed, it?s because we went after bin Laden and his minions with specific, extreme, and righteous prejudice. It?s because of regular people who took the terrorists down over Pennsylvania instead of the White House, and who wrestled shoe bomber Richard Reid onto the floor at 30,000 feet. It?s because, as a nation and as individuals, we showed that we would fight for a way of life that values freedom and privacy.

How wrong, then, that we?ve dealt away some of our freedom and privacy for a promise of safety and security. To be sure, today?s America is not Bentham?s Panopticon or Orwell?s dystopia (or even Castro?s). It?s not even solely a product of the September attacks, which merely hurried along trends that were already well under way. But in making the freedom-for-safety swap, we haven?t just dishonored the dead of 9/11. We?ve helped something else die too.