The Price of Liberty

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