Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Neither liberty nor security

This nation’s political dialogue has been corrupted by alarmist rhetoric the past four years, and no one is innocent, neither Republicans nor Democrats, conservatives, liberals or moderates. Every dispute becomes a battle for the very soul of the republic.

It is with this in mind that I am trying to ask myself why I should not be outraged over the NYPD’s decision to randomly search the bags of people entering New York City subway stations. After all, why—aside from logistical concerns, which are not inconsiderable—should we treat ground-level mass transit differently from flying? Airport security has been escalating for decades, and when one considers the measures that were instituted in the wake of the Pan Am 103 bombing, the layers that were added after September 11 hardly seem cumbersome at all. Taking off one’s shoes and having someone rifle through your suitcase is a small price to pay to avoid another 9/11.

I should add that I was in New York last week, and based on local news reports, New Yorkers not only tolerate the new policy, but welcome it. Who was I to argue with them? I would soon be back in Pittsburgh, and after all, those planes slammed into the World Trade Center, not the USX Tower, and the London Underground finds no counterpart in the T. Freedom is a right that can seem like a luxury.

That said, it is useful to remember that the goal of terrorism is not to kill, though killing is necessary for terrorism to succeed. The life of a bystander on a subway train, unlike the soldier on a battlefield, has no tactical value. His death is but a symbol, a message to his countrymen: You, or someone you love, could be next. We become fearful of doing the things that we do every day, and we lose faith in our government to protect us. Thus, any defensive measures that exceed the bounds of ordinary law enforcement, however necessary, represent a surrender to the terrible logic of terrorism. Four years out from September 11, this may sound clichéd, but that makes it no less true.

This takes us down a path that is fraught with peril, as the British discovered last week. I didn’t question their shoot-to-kill policy when I first heard about it, any more than I question our government’s policy to shoot down planes that fly into restricted airspace over the White House. British and American authorities now wrestle with the dilemma that the Israeli soldier, standing at a checkpoint in the occupied territories, confronts every day. Does he pat down the suspicious-looking young man in the bulky jacket, knowing that he could be blown to bits? Does he kill the man, knowing that if he is wrong, he’ll not only take an innocent life but also inflame hatred and possibly incite more terrorism? Does he let him pass, and accept responsibility for what happens next? There is no margin for error.

These are no longer theoretical questions for Americans. The police officers stationed outside New York City subway stations are proof of that. Liberty and security need not be mutually exclusive, but they are not always compatible, either. I don't pretend to know what the proper balance should be, and I have little faith that our leaders do, either. And I am saddened to think that we are one step closer to a day when we must choose between them.


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