The Price of Liberty

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I
have a good friend who is a Republican and in the past I've tried
to steer him towards libertarianism. While he shares a general fear
of big government, he was never convinced that a crisis is at hand – at
least not a crisis big enough to warrant a shift in politics.

One
common refrain I heard from him is that if the government ever started
shutting down newspapers and arresting people for speaking their
minds, he'd become a libertarian and take to the streets. So would
everyone else, the reasoning goes.

When
I first heard this argument, it made perfect sense to me. No one
can take away the freedom of Americans. Not us, by God. We'd man
the ramparts as soon as anyone really tried to take our freedom.
But as the years have gone by, I now recognize this argument for
what it is: Utter nonsense.

For
starters, essential liberty is taken away all the time, in broad
daylight, and no one is setting up barricades in the streets to
get it back. Another sobering fact is that these days the people
most likely to lead the fight for liberty are the very people who
find themselves in hot water.

Need
some examples? Right here in Iowa the government is cracking down
on a group of anti-war activists at Drake University in Des Moines.
Back in November, Drake held a conference sponsored by the National
Lawyers Guild featuring workshops on such subversive topics as U.S.
foreign policy and the economic roots of terrorism. The next day,
a small protest was held at the Iowa National Guard headquarters
and 12 people were arrested.

As
if seeing white-haired seniors being led away in handcuffs by Iowa's
finest wasn't startling enough, the federal government is now issuing
subpoenas to four of the peace activists and Drake University. Apparently,
the workshops and the protest drew the attention of the FBI and
are enough to begin a federal grand jury investigation.

Drake,
an expensive private college best known for its law school and an
annual track meet, also received a gag order from a federal judge
barring any of its employees from talking about the subpoenas. This
seems entirely fitting, since the whole affair is an attack on free
speech generally.

Will
any Iowans emerge from the snow to protest this ridiculous exercise
of federal police power? Not likely. When these people are hauled
into court next week, there will be no outrage. The Des Moines
Register will run a few headlines and the local poo-bahs will
make a few remarks, but that's about it. As long as no one is trucked
off to a gulag, we'll let it slide.

One
thing you can be sure of, there will be fewer such conferences in
the future. I certainly wouldn't want to participate or organize
an event in which the parting gift is a federal subpoena. I doubt
that Drake University wants one either.

By
now you may have heard about the silly "free-speech zones"
used to shield President Bush and other government officials from
the opinions of certain citizens. This is where authorities take
a group of protesters or someone holding up a sign of disagreement
and escort them so far away from the action as to make them wonder
why they left home.

Given
enough time, free-speech zones and subpoenas in the heartland will
achieve the same result as if newspapers were shut down and people
were arrested for speaking their minds. We will simply stay home,
mind our own business, and let the government do as it pleases.

There
are some of us who never thought we'd see such things in America,
but I can't say I'm one of them. It doesn't surprise me because
when it comes to protecting freedom you can't know for sure what
form tyranny will take. It makes sense that if freedom is to be
lost in America, it will be lost in a way we've not yet seen, or
will not recognize until it is too late.

Many
Americans can only envision a loss of liberty at the hands of foreign
invaders, or jack-booted demagogues screaming into microphones while
secret police whisk us away in the night. It is much harder to see
how our own democratic government could pull the rug out from under
us. Thus, I can understand why, when libertarians warn of losing
freedom, we are sometimes greeted as alarmists.

I
understand the apathy, but it is no less troubling. Like the French
huddled behind the obsolete Maginot Line in 1940, a lot of Americans
are only ready to fight yesterday's war – all the while blinded to
real threats to freedom that go unchecked.

Let
us not forget Wendell Phillips' warning: "Eternal vigilance
is the price of liberty." Let us hope that for our countrymen,
the standard required to sit up and take notice of lost liberty
is being lowered.

February
9, 2004

Scott
Kauzlarich [send
him mail
] is a professor of history and government at Ellsworth
Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa.


        
        

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