“The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”
Justice Louis Brandeis, United States Supreme Court
(Writing for the minority in his dissent in Olmstead v. United States, concerning whether wiretapping of private telephone calls violated a defendant’s rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution.)
Brandeis’ words, so eloquent and succinct, capture my own attitude. That, ironically, our freedoms are under attack more by leaders of our own government acting “for our own good” than they are by dictators or terrorists.
Maybe this has always been the case, but it feels particularly apropos now in this era of heightened security. So many of the freedoms we once took for granted have been carelessly tossed to the wind in the name of safety. We used to have the freedom to board an airplane without being frisked like a common criminal. We used to have the freedom to go to a concert without having our bags pawed through. We used to enjoy the freedom to express criticism of our own government, without fear that our words will be misconstrued or twisted and used against us. Ironically, these scenarios are reminiscent of totalitarian societies, the very evils we seek to avoid.
Some would argue that the curtailment of freedom is a necessary sacrifice in this “new world,” this “unprecedented age” of terrorism. I disagree for two reasons. First, because there has rarely been a time in our nation’s history when we weren’t at odds with some force or another that threatened our democracy and used terrorism to do so. Evil is nothing new. Think of the Nazis, the Fascists, the Communists, etc. Through all of these challenges, the United States emerged strong and virtuous, without ever succumbing to the notion that we needed to limit our freedoms in order to persevere.
Second, in the face of forces that threaten our way of life, it is more important than ever for us to embrace our freedoms and democracy than to do the opposite. Marginalizing the People only serves to bring us all under the net of totalitarianism.
Safety versus liberty—a constant tug of war. There will always be a difference of opinion among citizens on where to draw the line and how much government intrusion we are willing to tolerate. We will have this debate for generations to come. My hope is that the pendulum will soon swing back to the side of liberty.