“All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.” – Osama Bin Laden, October 2004 tape.
“I never thought I would see that a president would act in direct defiance of federal law by authorizing warrantless NSA surveillance of American citizens. This disrespect for the law is not only wrong, it is destructive in our struggle against terrorism.” – Eric Holder, June 2008 speech before the American Constitution Society.
“… (W)e have to make sure that we understand, as I’ve said in many speeches, that there’s not a tension between respecting our great tradition of civil liberties and having very effective law enforcement and anti-terror tools. There’s a false choice, I think, that is often presented.” – Eric Holder, January 2009 Senate confirmation hearings.
“You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. … There are trade-offs involved.” – President Barack Obama, Friday.
“If it comes to a choice between risking my life and losing my essential liberties, I’ll risk my life.” – the Death First Code.
Terrorism: an act of political violence designed to provoke policy changes by inspiring fear. This implies a simple corollary; if we’re not afraid, terrorism doesn’t work.
Are we still afraid?
For 12 years now, we’ve been told that our fear of terrorism justifies abridging our long-held national values around civil liberties … or worse, we’re told that these intrusions are entirely consistent with our national values. We’re told that the ill-defined threat changes what secrets the government may keep from us and what secrets the government may snatch from us.
We’re told, in so many words, that the alternative to warrant-less wiretapping, sweeping government data capture and the surveillance of whistle blowers and journalists is dead Americans.
Never mind that we can never know if that’s really true. Even if they told us exactly why, they’d be guessing.
Our elected officials of both parties are making a crude political calculation: that we have in fact been terrorized, and that they will be punished more harshly for allowing a terrorist attack than they will for violating our moral values around privacy and government intrusion.
Perhaps they’re right. Maybe Facebook and Twitter have made us all jaded. Maybe we’re not as brave a nation as we look like we are every time someone lights a bomb or shoots up a school. Or maybe we don’t value limits on the government’s power to snoop as much as our reaction to the IRS and journalist records’ scandals imply.
But a lot has changed in 12 years. Is it possible that we’ve finally figured out how to shrug off a bombing the way they do in London or Tel Aviv?
Let’s find out.
I propose a simple test. A pledge. “If it comes to a choice between risking my life and losing my essential liberties, I’ll risk my life.” – the Death First Code.
The purpose is plain. It’s a signal to policy makers to recalculate how they weigh the trade-offs between civil liberties and security threats. It undercuts the strategy of terrorists who believe we can still be jerked around on a chain. It also undercuts the argument of lawmakers worried about being punished at the polls for spending less on war or repealing security theater rules and civil liberties abuses.
It’s not an excuse to slack. It’s a call for intellectual rigor. We’re saying that if the margin between catching a terrorist or not requires something awful in the Patriot Act, we’ll willing to take the hit and hold leaders politically harmless for it … so, prove that what you’re doing actually works to reduce terrorism.
And it’s a positive statement: we’re as committed as our enemies to what we believe, we think our values make us stronger and that it’s OK to say so out loud.
This isn’t about partisan politics. Civil liberties are pretty immune to the left-right dichotomy. Virtually everyone up in arms about the wiretapping madness today was up in arms when Alberto Gonzales was at it seven years ago. I don’t want this to be a way to score political points for one team or another, though I do want it to give cover for politicians to repeal the Patriot Act.
“But … but, you’re making us less safe!” one might argue. Well … yes. I’m arguing that it’s OK to be a little less safe. We’re not getting enough safety for what we’re giving up. I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary. If enough people start making this argument, maybe we will see more of that evidence, and we would be better for it.