Lost in the fear-mongering of this year's election cycle is the issue of whether national security — namely those measures intended to protect the government and its agents — should necessarily trump personal freedoms. Campaign ads and stump speeches continually warn that implacable foes are surely lurking at home and abroad and the only way to forestall our certain slaughter is to give government more power to reach into our lives and to elect the candidate who best speaks the language of "us against them" whoever "them" may be. When the issue is framed in these terms, many voters continue to lend their support to continued waterboarding, domestic surveillance, extraordinary rendition and the prospect of engaging in additional aggressive wars against nations that may someday pose a threat.

This isn't likely to change until we can acknowledge that some enemies are easier to recognize than others.

As malevolent as genuine terrorist groups may be, it's worth remembering that they still lack the necessary infrastructure, manpower, and popular support to control even the third world countries they infest, much less the power to invade, enslave or conquer us. Despite the nearly superhuman characteristics with which they are sometimes portrayed, Al Qaeda and other terror groups are ultimately reduced to using attention-grabbing threats and isolated episodes of brutal violence to try to force their way upon the unwilling. Subtlety isn't one of their strong points. Radical Islamists bent on "taking away our freedoms" can only come at us head-on in an easily recognizable threat that would certainly unify and rouse the "sleeping giant" that Admiral Yamamoto acknowledged after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

A more likely, though less obvious, threat consists of the actions of those fear-mongers who, under the color of law are slowly but surely erecting a police state here at home through expansion of the power of the state at the expense of essential liberties. They do so by focusing the State's attention inward on American citizens through the Patriot, Military Commissions and Protect America Acts which allow the federal government to fight terrorism by regarding every American as a potential terrorist and engaging in warrantless eavesdropping, denial of due process, etc. The real purpose behind these acts is to increase the security of the government and its agents, not that of the average American.

Need proof that the protection is more one-sided than it's being portrayed?

Think back a couple of years to when a tiny Cessna aircraft got off course and flew over the nation's capitol. Remember the official response? News footage showed citywide panic on the part of government as select leaders were whisked to “secure locations” while the mere “people” who worked in D.C. were herded about like frightened cattle by officers in battle gear. It was a perfect demonstration of just who the State is willing to protect and who is going to be on their own. From the TSA shakedown at the airport to the rifle-toting officers now patrolling the New York subways, each show of force that government puts on to demonstrate how it’s “protecting” us from terror is window dressing for the purpose of demonstrating to the nervous Nellies who is “really in charge.”

Unlike its terrorist counterparts, the State really does have the power to impact virtually every aspect of our lives from work to recreation to living by piling on increasingly inflexible rules designed to solidify their control. And they're cheered on by the fearful masses that are clinging to the coat-tails of the very government that is fitting them for their restraints; not caring what becomes of liberty so long as the state and its agents say they're keeping us safe from terror by smiting the boogeyman of the day.

Many Americans still fixate on the 3,000 souls who perished on 9/11, but think nothing of the fact that roughly that many of their countrymen die each and every month at the hands of criminals. The probability of being the victim of a criminal attack in America is far higher than the chance of being a terrorist victim. Even so, a free people cannot and should not surrender to the State vital freedoms and responsibility for their personal well-being.

In truth, most of us are only touched or affected by terror to the degree that we allow fear of it to direct our lives or our thinking. Fearful people are more easily controlled and more easily persuaded to exchange their freedoms for promised security at the hands of the one entity that actually knows where they live, how much they make, what they buy, what they read, etc. Terrorists can’t monitor our private communications and bank statements, seize our assets, deny us the ability to travel, or prevent us from obtaining gainful employment. But our government has the ability to do all this and more at its pleasure.

This is the nature of government — any government — and that’s why the founders gave us a limited, accountable federal government with vertical and horizontal separation of powers as well as checks and balances and a Bill of Rights to keep it acting in its proper role. When we’re told that it’s a “necessity” for government power to expand or “the terrorists will kill us all,” it just demonstrates that the faces and names may change, but the tactics of fear never do.

Losing our freedoms to al Qaeda or any other radicalized sect of Islam is wishful thinking at best given their lack of capability to invade, overcome and conquer any nation, let alone America. But there’s a very real danger in our own government’s response to terrorist threats (both real and imagined) by which it justifies the expansion of its power and control over the American people at the cost of their freedoms.

Reflexively pointing to the events of 9/11 as the justification for expanded government power to "protect us" doesn’t change the fact that capability is the only thing that really counts when determining a threat. And the capability of terrorists to destroy liberty will never approach that of a government that refuses to abide by its limits.

Which is more likely to succeed in taking your freedom?

An enemy who openly comes out against you or one who pretends to be your protector?

February 18, 2008

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