Courage and Liberty

I must admit that I was a troubled upon reading that residents of several states will soon need to bring their passports in addition to their driver’s licenses with them to board domestic flights, starting in 2018.  I was troubled, but I was not surprised.

There was simply no reason to be surprised.  The Real ID act was signed into law more than a decade ago.  It was, apparently, passed in response to the fact that many of the 9/11 hijackers boarded their planes using fake ID’s.  That terrorist event was also the trigger for the creation of our very own KGB…which is more or less the same acronym as the DHS.  (KGB translates roughly as Committee of State Security, in case you didn’t know…a pretty close equivalence to the Department of Homeland Security).  Of course, we’d already long had the NSA, which acronym has a similar meaning, but its efforts and activities have typically been far more clandestine and less overtly intrusive than those of the DHS (though troubling, nonetheless).

So, in response to a single, albeit horrific, event, carried out by 19 men—and our own overblown terror of such things happening again—we have become what we fought so long against during the Cold War.  We have become like the Soviet Union.

Now, we Americans must have our “papers in order” if we want to travel from one place to another within the ironically nicknamed “land of the free and home of the brave.”  I recall watching movies about the USSR when I was younger, seeing all the checkpoints and interrogations though which people had to pass whenever they moved about, observing the fear that they would be found to be lacking in some critical aspect of their documentation, and would be taken away, their lives ruined.  I remember wondering how—if such situations were not entirely fictional—anyone could ever live that way.

I now know.

I also now have a definitive answer to the question raised at the end our national anthem:  “Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”  That answer is a resounding, “No.”  Oh, the flag still waves, and many proclaim their unthinking allegiance to it, as though it were some supernatural avatar, but we are demonstrably not free, and we are lamentably far from brave.  It is that lack of bravery, that cowardice—a moral cowardice, primarily—that has led us to give away our freedom.

We allowed a single event, admittedly one that did not happen in a vacuum, to fill us with such visceral and existential fear that the deaths of a few thousand—admittedly an unprecedented tragedy—blinded us to the greater importance of the ideals targeted by the hijackers.  It may be trite to say, but it’s entirely clear that the hijackers won that round, and their victory continues to pay dividends against the underpinnings of our society.

In the years since that attack, that moral cowardice—some of it in ironic response to the philosophically benighted reactions to that terrorism—has spread to circles that used to merit the name Liberal.  Now we have young people on college campuses—in public and online—attempting to enforce an almost Maoist, Stalinist level of doctrinal purity, using force to block the free speech of anyone with whom they disagree.  But perhaps “disagree” is too charitable a word.  Disagreement implies a thoughtful process, the result of a chain of reasoning.  Disagreements can be settled, at least in principle, by reasoned conversation.  Unfortunately, this requires intellectual honesty, or at least the attempt at such, and the moral courage of being willing to admit that one’s own point of view might turn out to be in error.

A great many of us seem to have lost that courage, if indeed we ever had it.

The many real issues we face as a nation, and as members of the international community, require thoughtful responses, not the willful surrender of liberty, whether intellectual or civil.  The strength of our feelings—whether our fear of terrorist attacks or our passion for a political cause—is simply an unreliable avenue by which to seek truth, too often amounting to counterfeit currency, when the only true coin of the realm is reason.

This is not to claim that emotions are unimportant.  Emotions are real, emotions are facts, they are events that legitimately exist within the human mind, and they are powerful aspects of our life experience.  But they are lamentably poor guides to behavior.  This shouldn’t be surprising; our emotions evolved to guide us—and our ancestors and relatives in the natural world—in an environment that is so different from the modern world that it might as well be an alien planet.  It is the working of our cerebral cortices, and particularly our frontal lobes, that has been the driving force behind all the greatest advances that have made human civilization what it is.  This is the part of us that allows us at times to act in spite of fear, whether that fear is physical or social, when we determine that action is necessary.

This is not to say that reason is flawless; no finite mind could hope to be free from the possibility of error.  But it is because of our failure of reason that we are so moved and motivated—and frightened—by the horrible deaths of a few thousand people sixteen years ago, while we ignore the 30,000 and more people every year who die on our highways and the 20,000 people a year who kill themselves with firearms.  It’s why we were terrified of anthrax in the mail, which killed a handful of people, even while the flu virus has killed even more people than traffic accidents have every year.  We fear shark attacks, and we fear terrorist attacks, when many more Americans die each year (6000, on average) from falling in their homes.

Has the Real ID act successfully prevented a single act of terrorism in the time since it was first passed, and in the subsequent years during which its policies were brought into fruition?  We cannot honestly say that it has or has not, because no systematic measurement of possible outcomes which might indicate success or failure was put into place when it was enacted.  But its real purpose—when one drills down on it—was never actually to catch terrorists or even to prevent terrorism, though that, of course, was its nominal intent.  Its real purpose was to make us feel better about a bogeyman, whether or not any actual good was done.  It was the legislative equivalent of whistling past a graveyard, or knocking on wood, a superstitious attempt to ward off evil spirits, to assuage our fears of unseen and vanishingly unlikely threats, even as we text and drive, eat boatloads of sugar, give up our access to healthcare, and allow our educational system to crumble even further into ruin than its already lamentable state.

I don’t think that the writers of the Real ID act, or the famous PATRIOT Act were really trying to institute a totalitarian, Orwellian regime in the United States (though I suppose I could be wrong about this).  I think they were responding to their own fears, and the fears of their constituents, and those fears drove them to do something—anything—whether it was of any value or not, and even if the consequence was to erode the civil liberties that make America worth defending.

So, now we have our own KGB, and we must have our “papers in order” if we wish to travel by plane even within our own nation.  We have politically correct thought-police on college campuses and on social media, refusing to allow anyone to speak if they do not toe the party line on some particular issue.  These purifiers sometimes even use violence to prevent speech with which they disagree…or rather, speech that they find uncomfortable, since again, the notion of disagreement implies a process of reason that often cannot be detected in such exchanges.

What should we do in response?  I suppose that if we don’t really mind losing all the qualities of life and Enlightenment principles upon which our country was founded, then we can just let things go the way they are, and convince ourselves that freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and war is peace.  But if we wish to continue our quest to achieve the ideals put forth in the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, then we need to accept, and even embrace, the fact that freedom is not safe.  Freedom entails risks—literal and figurative ones.  Freedom recognizes the possibility of error.  But freedom allows us to learn from and correct our errors, which will happen whether we are free or not.  Freedom requires responsibility; indeed, it implies it.  To make the most of it, and to protect it, it demands that we educate ourselves assiduously, and that we hold reason—our best means of navigating the universe—as superior to emotion.  Above all, freedom requires courage, both physical and moral.  We need to have the courage to face our own biases, and those of our fellow humans, and to call them into question within ourselves at least as vigorously as in anyone else, not in a spirit of accusation, confession, contrition, or abjection, but in the spirit of realizing that only through the recognition of error can we come closer to the truth.

As a culture, I fear we have a long way to go before we achieve this state.  To move toward it, we must come to recognize that civil liberties are more important than momentary physical safety, and are clearly, vastly more important than the illusion of safety granted by forcing every American who wants to fly on a plane to have some certain, specific combination of identification.  Surely the best way to stand against terrorism is to show that we have convictions about liberty, reason, and Enlightenment values that are stronger than those that would drive someone to fly a plane into a building.  They are stronger because they are based in reality, and when they are found to contain errors, those errors are amendable to correction.  These ideals are worth taking some risks to defend.  They are ideals for which many have died, both explicitly and implicitly.  They are ideals that make life worth living and a nation worth defending.

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