"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it."
-John F. Kennedy
I have always identified with that quote, and have very much embraced "the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger," but I have never felt the importance of that role to the extent that I have in the past week. If you've been watching the news, you know that Congress is considering all sorts of new legislation in response to the 9-11 attacks. You probably also know that much of what Congress is considering could have a negative impact on our remaining civil liberties.
You may or may not know that a huge coalition of non-profits and political organizations came together to urge Congress to be careful, and to guard our essential liberties as they attempt to legislate a solution to the "new" terrorist threat. You may or may not know that a number of other pro-freedom declarations and petitions have appeared to urge the same, and to urge restraint in the impending military response to the terrorists. I've been following this quite closely, and I have been pleasantly surprised to find how loud and effective the voice of freedom is in America. Normally, I wouldn't find it surprising at all—I am acutely aware that the forces of freedom in America are strong and getting stronger— but there was a short period of time when it really looked like Congress, with the backing of the polls, was going to run off and change all the rules in a series of quick moves. This scare was begun when the Senate (too quickly) passed an amendment expanding law enforcement powers to a dangerous level, just two days after the attacks, in a hurried nighttime vote.
Luckily, that huge coalition of political groups formed almost overnight, and issued a firm and resounding "SLOW DOWN!" call to Congress and the nation. They rightly garnered a decent amount of press coverage in doing so, and apparently their action, and other related outpourings of reaction , have been enough to shift the tide, and restore some deliberation and critical analysis into the discussions of new legislation.
"Only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom..." Ours is one of those generations. JFK was talking about defending freedom in a different way than I am, but he was talking about the same freedom. It's the freedom we take for granted when we call this a "free country." The freedom by which we distinguish "the free world." It's the freedom of individuality and self-determination, the freedom of the pursuit of happiness. It's the freedom of privacy and security, and of knowing that you can do what you want as long as you don't hurt anybody— and nobody will interfere with your activities.
"...in its hour of maximum danger." Freedom is in danger, and in many ways, right now could be seen as its hour of maximum danger. There are enough freedoms on the bargaining table right now, that if the cards fall the wrong way, we could end up with a radically altered America, and a radically redefined conception of what "the free world" will mean in the future. It doesn't have to be that way, and hopefully it won't, but make no mistake, those are the cards on the table. Freedom itself is at stake right now, and we can either protect it and defend it, or we can be silent, and allow it to be taken away from us, and from future generations.
"I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it." You may think that there's nothing worth fighting for, or that the "game" is fixed—that The Powers That Be are pulling all the strings, and all we can do is try to survive and raise good kids in spite of it all— but that is not the case. There is still very much about America that is worth saving, and the fight is on—right now. Your generation—our generation—has been granted the opportunity to defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger, and it is time to answer the call of battle. Don't let the warhawks and authoritarians intimidate you. Don't give in to the pressure of the polls and pundits. Be questioning, be provocative, be challenging. Make it hard for those who want to abridge freedoms, or who want to indiscriminately bomb other countries. Don't take this situation lying down. If you've ever wanted to stand up for something, here is a golden opportunity. You have the opportunity to defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger.
Don't shrink from that responsibility. Welcome it.
I have compiled a page of action items and readings to help you do your duty to your country, to your family, and yourself. Spend some time working for freedom this week. Spread the word, write a letter to the editor, call a talk show, and call your Congresspeople. Forward this article, or my freedom actions page, to your friends. Do something, and do it this week, and the next week. Keep it up until our freedoms, all of them, are safe and secure. If we work hard enough, we can make it happen—if not for our generation, then for the ones to come.
It's now been over a week since the "9-11 Attacks," and I have to say, I'm a little bit worried about our country. 70+ percent think it would be o.k. if we caused civilian casualties in our hunt for the perpetrators—somehow ignoring the fact that causing civilian casualties is what we are hunting down the perpetrators for in the first place. 70+ percent think it would be o.k. if we had to forego some of our freedoms in response to the terrorism— somehow ignoring the fact that our freedoms are what make this a country worth defending from terrorists.
At my StopCarnivore.org website, there has been a sudden shift in e-mailed opinions—the majority of those e-mailing me think that use of Carnivore and increased surveillance are a fair price to pay in light of the "new" dangers we are now facing. One woman (a Eugenia Provence) went so far as to hope that my website suffers an attack of its own—hoping that StopCarnivore.org gets "hacked, junked, and thrown out the window." Apparently terrorism is o.k. as long as it is against perceived "enemies" of the United States. Eugenia seems to think that because I still believe that we should follow the Constitution, I am one of those enemies, and thus it is o.k. to wish harm upon me and my endeavors.
"Now is not the appropriate time to be criticizing our Government," is a popular thing to say this week. "We must do whatever we need to in order to rid our country of the menace of terrorism," is another. "We may need to temporarily suspend some of our liberties in order to preserve freedom," is how another one goes. And of course there is, "When the Constitution was written/when our Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights, they couldn't have imagined the world as it is today."
Let's take a look at each of those ideas, and see how much merit they have:
"Now is not the appropriate time to be criticizing our Government"
Right now, the stakes involved in any action our Government takes are higher than at most times in our nation's history. We are deep in the midst of defining what America and the World will be like in the 21st Century and beyond.
The actions that world leaders take now could result in restoring freedom on earth for all, or they could result in the world being annihilated by nuclear weapons. It's possible that the freedoms which make America so great will be preserved indefinitely, and it is also possible that those freedoms will be eliminated forever in a short period of time.
Now is the time when careful critique and analysis of what our Government does is more important than ever before in our lives. It doesn't do us much good to keep the country alive if we allow the principles which make the country worth saving to be eroded for the sake of "national unity." I support my country in its efforts to rebuild; I support my government in its efforts to fight terrorism; but I cannot sit idly by while opportunistic politicians use this crisis as cover for their less-than-noble pursuits. Now more than ever we must watch what our leaders are doing on "our behalf" like a hawk. It won't do us any good to defeat terrorism, only to look around us and find that the America we loved is a thing of the past.
Perhaps if the voices decrying the Vietnam War as an immoral waste of time had been louder, a few thousand American men would still be alive. Perhaps if those who said the military shouldn't be deployed at campus protests had been louder, there wouldn't have been any Kent State Massacre.
"We must do whatever we need to in order to rid our country of the menace of terrorism"
This is one of the more disturbing mantras floating around in the past week. Many Americans seem willing to go to any extreme, in hopes of eliminating terrorism. Perhaps the most frightening of those extremes is the fact that most Americans think it's permissible for the U.S. to kill innocent civilians in pursuit of our new faceless enemy.
Let's review that once, really slowly. What are we so upset about? The fact that innocent civilians were killed in an attack. And we should be upset— the murder of innocent civilians is a hateful, abhorrent act. And yet somehow (I honestly can't understand how) people seem to be finding a way to rationalize the creating of more innocent casualties in this war between us and the terrorists. Somehow it is escaping those folks that as soon as we kill innocent people, we become terrorists ourselves. It escapes them that our killing of innocent people in the past 60 years is one of the things that has made us a terrorist target in the first place. It somehow escapes them that for each innocent mother we kill, we may be creating an orphan who will someday be another terrorist, looking to avenge the death of his innocent, dead mother.
"We may need to temporarily suspend some of our liberties in order to preserve freedom"
Killing innocent people isn't the only extreme Americans seem willing to go to. If you believe the polls, most Americans are also willing to give up some of our remaining civil liberties in order to fight this war. Perhaps this is because most Americans are under the impression that we will only have to give up these liberties for a limited amount of time. If only it were so.
During World War II, a law was introduced to force the withholding of income tax from people's paychecks— producing an important revenue boost during the war. And though it has been almost 60 years since we have been in a war of that magnitude, income tax withholding is still with us—an apparently permanent leftover from WWII. During the Civil War, states' rights were largely suspended in order to "preserve the union." Unfortunately, states never got back most of those rights, and in many ways America's major wars have resulted in the humongous Federal Government that we have today.
Whatever we give up to fight this war against terrorism we may never get back. If you are ready to give up your right to privacy, your freedom of movement; if you are ready to have roadblocks at all of our borders; if you are ready to have national fingerprinting and I.D. cards—you had better be ready to live with those things (or without those freedoms) for the rest of your life. And you should be aware that you are sticking future generations with these "temporary measures" as well. We are not talking about temporary war measures to help fight terrorism—we are talking about permanent changes to the way America works. If, someday in the future, you are sitting in jail because you forgot to bring your national I.D. card with you while walking your dog, you can look back to these weeks as the time when you sent yourself to jail.
"Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program," said Milton Friedman. He's a smart guy. Probably smarter than you and I. Don't form your opinions around the idea that the changes being proposed for America will be temporary. Odds are, even if it says "temporary" right in the legislation, it's a change we'll be stuck with for a generation or two, at minimum.
"When the Constitution was written/when our Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights, they couldn't have imagined the world as it is today."
There isn't much that irks me more than when the "average Joe" second-guesses the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. For that matter, I don't like it much when even exceptional Joes second-guess them. These men thought long and hard while designing our government, and they weren't trying to design something that would work only in their time. They aimed to design a government which could change and grow with the times, while always preserving what they had determined to be essential liberties.
The invention of airplanes and computers does not change what our Founding Fathers concluded was good government, after considering all the governments that had come and gone before them. The fact that the majority of communication takes place via telephones and e-mail instead of in person and via letters does not change a person's right to be secure in their "papers and effects."
And as for the idea that our Founding Fathers could not anticipate what the future would hold—keep in mind that these are the men who managed to break away from one of the greatest empires on earth, and create a nation so impressive and prosperous that it became the greatest empire itself, faster than any nation in the history of the world. These men had foresight to spare, and they set up our government to last forever— and to preserve our rights forever.
The Bill of Rights was intended to list the essential rights that all people should have...it wasn't a temporary measure—it was a list of liberties which should never be infringed upon. The idea that the existence of the Internet, or fiber optics, or automobiles, or whatever else somehow makes the Bill of Rights obsolete is short-sighted almost to the point of being painful.
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," said Benjamin Franklin. What did Ben Franklin know? Enough to discover that lightning was made of electricity; enough to invent the battery, and bifocal lenses, and a new type of stove, and the odometer, among other things. And he knew a lot more about running a free country than you or I do.
Do you think you know enough to second-guess the wisdom of one of our country's wisest men? Do so at your own peril. Personally, I'll take Ben's word for it. I'm much more inclined to trust the judgment of him and his colleagues than I am to trust the fools and thieves in Congress today, or the opinions of a random sample of 1000 people called up by MSNBC.
I'm worried for our country. I worry for poor Eugenia Provence, who wishes harm upon me; I worry for the war hawks who are wishing a burning Hell upon Afghanistan; I worry for the Muslim-Americans who will find life more difficult for a long time to come; mostly, I worry for the future generations who will be forced to live under the laws that may get pushed through in the coming weeks.
Be smart, America. Calm and smart. Our country is fine (for the most part)—please don't screw it up. We have to live here, you know?