Arrests in the latest airline terrorist plot were triggered by the interception of a telephone conversation between two of the plotters, and apprehension of the group was facilitated by monitoring their financial transactions. So, of course, certain parties jump to the conclusion that the phone call and the financial transactions were culled from the random warrantless monitoring of billions of calls and transactions, and they are now calling for more US governmental authority to indulge in warrantless spying on the communications and business matters of Americans.
First, since the British had been monitoring this group for quite some time I strongly suspect that the telephone call was not randomly intercepted from billions of calls. Or even millions. Or even dozens. Okay, admittedly I don’t know that, nor do I know whether or not the authorities had a warrant. I haven’t read anything that says whether or not search warrants were involved but, given the circumstances surrounding the case, I have a strong idea that they were or at least could have been.
Likewise for the bank records. I don’t know for sure about the randomness of those observations either, but I have my doubts.
Both of those issues, however, beg the question of liberty versus safety, and it is that issue that is on my mind today.
I read a poll not long ago which said that a majority of those interviewed would approve of warrantless interception of telephone numbers and financial records if it would protect us from terrorism. That didn’t just bother me, it frightened me.
The men and women who founded this country faced dangers that we cannot even imagine. These people left the relative comfort of European homes and crossed an ocean in tiny ships, losing many of their number on the way, to arrive in a foreign land which was hostile and dangerous. They died of new and frightening diseases, they starved, they were killed by hostile people and by wild animals, they froze to death and died of thirst, they were killed in wars big and small. One of the first colonies in this “New World” vanished in its entirety with so little trace that we do not even know what killed its people.
They came in the face of terrible danger because the opportunity for freedom and liberty was more important to them than life itself.
I don’t think anybody knows what the rate was for the loss of life of those who founded this country. At Jamestown it was 100%, as it was at the Alamo. What was it overall? For the purpose of this discussion let’s imagine the smallest number that is within reason, 1.2%. Actually, that is an absurd number. The loss of life of those who settled this new land was certainly far higher than that, but fix that number in your mind nonetheless – 1.2%.
The terrorist strikes of 9/11 caused 3000 deaths and I would not, for any cause or to make any point, diminish that tragedy. Like the rest of the country, of the world, I stood stunned and angered that day, and wept for the loss of life and the loss to families and loved ones of those who died. I can still remember the sense of shock as I saw the first tower fall, and I recall feeling that the world had in some way fundamentally changed.
For that event to create change is inevitable and inescapable, but for it to change us as a nation to the degree that, almost five years later, we are willing to surrender essential liberties is shocking to me. For 9/11 to change what we do is one thing; for it to change who we are is something else altogether.
About 250 million people lived in the US on 9/11, so about one in 83,000 lost their lives to that terrorist strike. In fact, slightly under one in 83,000 of us have lost their lives to terrorists in the entire history of this country, even including the strikes which have occurred overseas. Again, I do not mean in any way to diminish the tradegy of those who have lost their lives, to detract from the meaning of that loss. It is real, it is tragic, and we must do all that is within our power to prevent that death toll from increasing.
But we must not, in the words of Ben Franklin, “surrender essential liberties to purchase a little safety.”
Our forefathers left a legacy to us, a great document. A truly incredible document. It’s called The Constitution of The United States of America and it embodies the principles that they risked their lives for: lost their lives for at a rate of 1.2% (for the purpose of this discussion). That meant that creating this New World meant one chance in 83 of losing their lives.
Our forefathers took a 1/83 risk with their lives to create this noble document, and we must not become unwilling to preserve it due to a risk that is 1/83,000: one thousand times less.
Right now we have 145,000 men and women (well, the number keeps changing, but…) overseas in harms way defending our country, defending the principles spelled out in The Constitution of The United States of America. More than 2600 of them have lost their lives. Roughly ten times that number have been wounded.
They are putting their lives on the line and we are cowering in our foxholes with the craven refrain of, “Yes I’ll give up my liberty, just keep me safe.”
What have we come to? What have we become?