The Paradox of Tradeoff between Security and Liberty

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The debate in our mainstream media about enhancing security within the United States hovers around the model that liberty and security are mutually exclusive, and we need to give up some liberty to get some security.  It seems that the only question to ask is: how much liberty need we give up to become more secure?

What has not been highlighted is the viewpoint that the two (i.e. security and liberty) are not mutually exclusive; they certainly do not have an inverse mutual relationship on the same dimension.  Benjamin Franklin conveyed the point clearly: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Another point our media has conveniently ignored is that the current paradigm is regressive and falls flat on its face if taken a couple of steps further.  What if there is another terrorist attack on the U.S. soil?  Would we give up some more liberty then?  What if there is yet another attack despite giving up more liberties?  Would we then be willing to live in a police state?

Many experts are very emphatic on this subject.  Frank Anderson, former head of CIA’s Middle East operations was recently questioned by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes about how much civil liberty we need to give up.  Anderson did not mince his words: “Absolutely none.  If we cannot handle this problem without surrendering our civil liberties or constitutional freedoms, then I do not want to live in this country and I do not want to offer my son up to it.”

All of the secrecy accompanying this situation also has an implication for our democratic maxim that ours is a government of the people, for the people, by the people.  How dear do we hold this maxim, and even what do we mean by democracy?  Abraham Lincoln enunciated the philosophical foundation of our concept of democracy succinctly: “I am a firm believer in the people.  If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.  The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

In order to neutralize the threats we face, we need to understand them a little more deeply.  And we should try to figure out how such threats come into being.  Let’s ask ourselves the question: who created al-Qaeda?  The answer may be disturbing and even depressing, but finally knowing the truth is a liberating experience.  This knowledge may even lead us to realize what the rest of the world has been trying to tell us for a long time about our own foreign policy.  Thus information about what’s going on and what the government has found out is an essential part of our national decision-making process.  It may be worth reminding ourselves that secrecy is antithesis to democracy and that the excuse! of national security is often just that: an excuse.

Roger Morris, a former member of the National Security Council under presidents Johnson and Nixon, highlights this reality: “é I would say 90 to 95 percent of the secrets kept by the American government are secrets of expedience and political convenience é these are very momentous matters, but don’t let anybody tell you that it’s authentic national security. That’s nonsense. This is self-protection. But until we change our methods of governance, you’re stuck with it.”

In November 2001, President Bush signed an executive order that allows either a sitting or past president to block access to White House papers.  This order reverses a 1978 law, emanating from the Watergate scandal, which allowed U.S. citizens access to presidential papers 12 years after the term of office finished.  This is one example of how the excuse of “terrorism” and “national security” is apt to be misused.

In a piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Pat Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, elaborated: “Some of these new executive orders have nothing to do with terrorism. An example is assertion of a presidential right to overrule both Congress and prior presidents to prevent the release of presidential papers. President Bush argues nonexistent constitutional powers, a thin and insupportable ground. Nor is there any reason. One therefore has to look for hidden reasons.”

100 Nobel laureates made a statement recently that was largely ignored by our mainstream media.  Among other things it said the following: “It is time to turn our backs on the unilateral search for security, in which we seek to shelter behind wallséTo survive in the world we have transformed, we must learn to think in a new way.”

The economic and political power play in the world is a complex phenomenon.  It is not a battle between good and evil.  And it is certainly not a battle where any one side is consistently on the side of “good.”  Developing some understanding of this complexity would go a long way in our ability to be secure and simultaneously retain our liberties.

When we look around the globe, we realize that the world’s history has not seen a nation stronger than the United States, militarily or economically.  It may also be worth noting that a strong and honorable democratic nation faces no threat to its security and liberty more serious than its own collective innocence and unawareness.

The author, a former air force pilot from Pakistan, is now a US citizen. He has held management positions with a number of multinational corporations in the United States as well as in Europe. His education is in physics, and he also holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan Business School. His civic work has been with organizations such as Amnesty International and UNICEF. He lives in Connecticut with his wife Dr. Aysha Saeed.

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