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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Politics
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 8/23/07

“Liberty, too, must be limited in order to be possessed.”
-Edmund Burke

Quotations being often used out of context, it is only fair to say that Edmund Burke believed strongly that liberty was a good to be improved, not an evil to be lessened. But he also believed that human beings come before abstract principles and that limitations on personal freedoms were sometimes necessary to preserve those freedoms. The degree of limitation, he felt, was impossible to set precisely. As in most trade-offs, much depends upon the circumstances at the time.

Today’s debate regarding government’s intrusion into our personal lives comes nearly a half dozen years after the events of 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of those horrific events, there was little discussion over the evils of government surveillance of private citizens. There was anger and outrage over the fact that religious fanatics had exploited our own freedoms and open society to attack innocent American civilians out of pure hatred. As we digested those events, some of the anger began to be directed toward our own government for failing to adequately protect us from such threats.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

What a difference six years has made. We have been spared a repeat of 9/11 although other nations have suffered deadly attacks at the hands of terrorists. Many more have been thwarted, some barely, thanks to excellent intelligence and interrogation measures. But the respite for Americans apparently has allowed complacency to set in.

We Americans value greatly our personal freedom to come and go without our movements being scrutinized. We have a deep distrust of government prying and see a threat in any attempt to collect personal data on us or to track our movements. We are even suspicious of census takers. There is a fear of the “Big Brother” government that George Orwell wrote about in a book entitled Nineteen Eighty-four, a date which subsequently came and went without much evidence of that fear being realized. Yet, for all their paranoia about government snooping and the right to privacy, they demand ever more of government, not only in terms of greater safety, but in the form of more services and convenience. It is time to ask if we can always have it both ways.

The terrorist surveillance program (TSP), authorized by President Bush after 9/11 and designed to protect Americans by gaining knowledge of impending plans for terrorist attacks, has been demonized by the president’s political opponents as an abuse of government and a denial of fundamental rights to privacy, even though it is clearly targeted at al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and those trying to communicate with them, not at ordinary Americans. This security issue was transformed into a political issue and taken up as a cause by anti-administration forces. Thanks to Democrats in Congress, the program has now been reduced and constrained to the point that its effectiveness is in serious doubt. The privacy of the overwhelming majority of Americans was never threatened by this program. Because of its emasculation, however, their security now may be.

Current technology permits us to imbed a cheap silicon chip in a plastic card to produce a virtually tamper-proof ID card. Such a card would be of immense value to the bearer as well as to law enforcement, employers and to other officials in establishing identity. It would help in the apprehension of wanted criminals, suspected terrorists and those who are in the country illegally. It would provide critical information to health authorities in the event of an emergency. It would save time and expedite processing in countless situations. There are, to be sure, risks that unscrupulous people could capture sensitive information but there are affordable protections that minimize these risks.

 Yet, a large percentage of Americans remain opposed to a smart, tamper-proof ID card because of deeply ingrained suspicions that the government has some sinister motive in issuing them and is somehow out to spy on them. These fears are promoted by advocate organizations whose members apparently have something to hide. These are the same people who often willingly provide an abundance of personal information to issuers of credit, medical service providers and web merchants. One would think that they would be far more concerned with identity theft than with government surveillance.

Other nations seem much less paranoid. In Britain and many European nations, security cameras are everywhere, recording the comings and goings of ordinary people. They have been invaluable in reconstructing crime scenes and in apprehending criminals and terrorists. So exactly what is it that we are so worried about here? Please be specific. Big Brother is really not a good enough answer when public safety is the issue. CRO

copyright 2007 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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