The Death First Code

“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.


    • saltycracker says:

      Warrantless spying on citizens is wrong – on non-citizens….depends…ok if Al Qaeda or other terrorist group –
      gleaning public info & international transactions ok but then the devil is in the definitions –

      • George Chidi says:

        Well … I agree with you about the non-citizens issue, when it’s done overseas. Except as a practical matter that’s not what’s apparently happening. We went from “only non-citizens overseas” to “only non-citizens but even when they’re here” to “mostly non-citizens anywhere, but it’s a mistake when we get U.S. citizens” to “no less than half are non-citizens, and we’re not trying to capture citizens too, but when we do the consequences are (classified).”

        Bulls–t. Show me. And don’t tell me that you’re keeping it secret for my protection. I’m telling you that you don’t need to protect me as much as you say you do.

  1. Ghost of William F Buckley says:

    Terrorism: an act of political violence designed to provoke policy changes by inspiring fear THAT YOUR GOVERNMENT IS POWERLESS TO PROTECT YOU.

    At best, terrorists have taken pot shots at us, since 9/11 and those incidents hardly incite the type of fear that our government cannot protect us. Massive cyber attacks against our infrastructure denying clean water, power, or transportation would be gamechangers.

    The National Security Act passed in 1949, the very first time in American history that the Constitution or Bill of Rights could be usurped, at law.

    As with virtually everything else, we must balance our need to stop the horror of gamechangers with our sacred liberty.

    • George Chidi says:

      Perhaps these massive cyber attacks would be gamechangers. That’s an argument for making the electronic controls on our physical infrastructure more robust.

      I’m not arguing that there should be no balance between liberty and security. I’m arguing that you can’t stop the argument there.

      This is how these conversations usually go: Someone shouts “Freedom!” in their best Braveheart voice. Someone else says you have to balance freedom against security, quotes the line about how the Constitution isn’t a suicide pact … and then says that’s all the justification needed to restrict liberty. There’s a middle part that needs to be filled in — the actual cost-benefit test weighing the value of the freedoms sacrificed against the security value realized.

      We’re simply asked to trust that our elected leaders have secretly made these calculations for us, and that they balance. A secret threat justifies ripping all of our secrets from us.

      This is me calling bulls–t. If I tell you I’m willing to suffer the consequences, I can demand that you show me your cards.

      • Ghost of William F Buckley says:

        I agree with this premise…

        “There’s a middle part that needs to be filled in — the actual cost-benefit test weighing the value of the freedoms sacrificed against the security value realized.”

        … and submit that there is a built-in impracticality with this test – there cannot be any real public input because everything is classified, and probably should be so. Not every national security success can or will be publicized, but every failure is self-evident. How can these agencies show anyone their cards when they are so compartmentalized that only a few in each organization has privy to the larger picture?

        Says Sen. Chamblis, vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee:

        “It has proved meritorious because we have gathered significant information on bad guys and only on bad guys over the years,” said Chambliss. Chambliss is vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.

        We may have to accept that future headlines may read:

        Cyber Terrorist Freed after 20 years – Falsely Accused.

  2. Stump Barnes says:


    I totally agree with your piece. At the core of this issue is cowardice. Just last week, Americans celebrated the courage of our soldiers who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy to liberate a continent from a totalitarian regime that couldn’t even dream of the police state resources the Bush-Obama Administration now possesses.

    Tragically, our politicians and much of our populace lacks even a fraction of that courage. The one thing our leaders should’ve asked of Americans after 9/11 was to have the courage to be free and not compromise our Constutional rights. Instead, we gave the terrorists what they wanted: a frightened and altered society.

    On both ends of the political spectrum I see politicians, pundits, an opinion polls strongly supporting the shredding of our last bit of privacy and freedom all for the illusion of safety. Yet, the odds of being a victim of a terrorist attack on US soil are almost infinitesimal. Furthermore, if you don’t live NYC, D.C., Los Angeles, or a handful of other major cities, your odds are really nil. In one sense, this hysterical over reaction to terrorism is simply due to the fact that our “elites” live in the two biggest terrorist targets (NYC and D.C.).

    If you breakdown even further the supposed 50 attempted terrorist plots thwarted in the US since 9/11, based upon press accounts you find that probably a majority were either government run operations involving hapless jhaidists recruited/aided by FBI informants, or pie-in-the-sky aspirational terrorists plots involving wannabes with neither the training, resources, or actual activity-level to attempt the alleged terrorist plots. The two successful terrorists attacks we’ve experienced (Ft. Hood and Boston) illustrate the ridiculousness of the whole digital dragnet.

    The really sad thing is that 12 years have passed since 9/11, yet our surveillance state has only grown more extreme. Just think, 12 years after Pearl Harbor not only we’re we done with WWII, but the Korean War was over. Or perhaps more appropriately, 12 years after the Reichstag fire the regime that exploited it was disposed upon the ash heap of history. Isn’t 12 years enough of this hysteria?

    George, I really like your oath. Unfortunately, I think very few politicians and average Americans have the courage to take it.

  3. Stump Barnes says:


    Perhaps you shouldn’t call it the “Death Code.” That sounds like something a kamikaze pilot would recite. Instead, call it something positive like the “Courage to be Free” pledge.

    • George Chidi says:

      You may be right. My thinking was to be a bit stark, purposely provocative, and to avoid as much of the left-right dog whistle imagery as possible. I’m not sure I’ve fully baked this idea, but I’m hoping discussion will be clarifying.

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