Liberty or Security?
By Haviland Smith
Commentary – June 19, 2016
If you believe that the Orlando attack was the last one we will experience, you are horribly wrong.
As a result of the nature and magnitude of that attack, we are faced here in America with a complicated choice. That attack and the subsequent endless media evaluations of what “really happened” and what it “really means” will simply hasten the inevitable compulsion that our government will feel to take charge of the situation, driven as it is by public opinion. How it reacts will color the future of this country for decades to come.
In 1775, Benjamin Franklin correctly said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”.
These words appear in a letter written by Franklin on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly to the colonial governor. That letter was part of a power struggle between the governor and the assembly over funding for security on the frontier. It has made its way into today’s vocabulary and taken on a far more significant meaning.
In reality, “safe” countries are not free and “free” countries are not safe. The more permissive (free, democratic, etc.), as our country is, the less safe it will be. Only through undemocratic, draconian measures, can terrorism be controlled and safety maintained. It is up to us to decide whether or not we are better off in the aggregate for the loss of our liberties, remembering that once surrendered, they are difficult to reacquire. Will a sense of safety, however illusory, be worth that loss? Or are we better off maintaining our constitutional freedoms, recognizing that they will be accompanied by at least partially manageable uncertainties about our safety?
Our choice is stark because, if we truly want to try to be safe, many of our constitutional freedoms will go by the wayside. An active, competent and aggressive internal security organization like the FBI, if charged with reestablishing real safety in this vast country will have to seek powers and authorities that it now does not have. Those powers and authorities will severely limit if not demolish many of the constitutional freedoms to which we are now accustomed.
Finally, given the reality of internet self-radicalization programs designed to appeal to any and all Americans who are thinking of becoming terrorists, there is no guarantee that we can succeed at this endeavor.
To do this difficult job correctly any internal security service like the FBI will have to have freedom to institute and use phone, mail and internet intercepts. They will need to reintroduce profiling, or the detention, questioning, arrest, and/or search of people solely on the basis of the person's race or ethnicity. They will have to be able to hold people in custody in ways that are not compatible with today’s individual liberties. We will see surveillance, provocation and entrapment operations run against any and all targets presumed to be hostile. Restrictions on “probable cause” will disappear. The list goes on and on.
These and other similar activities will be necessary as long as hostile terrorist organizations exist here and abroad. Even if we had the financial and military ability and the will to wipe out ISIS, which we certainly do not, the remnants will remain and they surely will be targeted against America. As long as there are disaffected Americans, whether native or immigrant, we will be at risk.
Military action against terrorism abroad is unlikely to succeed. Terrorism is mostly a law enforcement and intelligence problem. Military activity against it results, as we have already seen in the Middle East, in increased hostility toward the United States.
So, we are faced with a choice. Do we want to surrender many of our basic personal liberties and change this country into something it has never before been in the hope that in doing so we will somehow increase our security? Or do we want to work within our existing laws, customs and constitutional guarantees in the knowledge that where we may very well be able to inhibit terrorist activity here at home, Orlando will not be the last attack we suffer?
The tragedy of picking safety over liberty is that it provides no guarantees. In addition, once relinquished, liberty is difficult to reestablish.
In 2013 in America, 505 people were killed accidentally by firearms and another 11,208 were killed intentionally by another person. In 2013, 32,719 people were killed in vehicle crashes. In that same year, 21 people were killed by terrorists in the USA.
It would appear that we have for more compelling issues here than terrorism.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran and Washington, as Executive Assistant in the Director’s office and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.