Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Civil Libertarians Putting Americans in Harm's Way (7 June 2013)

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground;
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.
— Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

Yo, Civil Liberties Pushers complaining about surveillance! (Cheek swabbing for DNA gets into other issues.)

            Are you saying that you would endanger innocent Americans, increasing the risks of death, dismemberment, rape, or maiming to American men, women, and even our children just to defend your right to privacy?!

            'Cause I will say something like that, except I would put it as defense of, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," to quote the US Bill of Rights, Amendment 4.

             To repeat the cliché: Freedom isn't free, indeed, and part of the cost of freedom is avoidable deaths of innocent people. Look, most Americans — that "great, silent majority" — would be safer from terrorism and crime in a police state. Anything less than a police state is a net increase in risk for most Americans. Let's all grant that.

            Let's grant also that John Kerry was right in his gaffe — definition: a politician's letting slip what he thinks and/or the truth — "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives but they're a nuisance," a deadly threat for the victims, but this side of a loose nuke not a threat to the Republic. Also, with nukes complicating the equation, not a major risk factor in American lives.

             If you're into the Constitution and Liberty and all that, you need to be willing to tolerate some increased dangers, and there has to be "a clear and present danger" before you even start to talk about giving up liberties. Then you have to do risk-assessment.

            You're worried about unlikely but catastrophic risks, and you should be? Well, there's Earth getting hit again by a substantial comet or asteroid, and there's full-scale thermonuclear war. Either could wipe out the human species, and a number of others, or at least blast human civilization back to a pre-industrial era. We can do a better job tracking extraterrestrial threats and we can reduce the number of nuclear warheads worldwide to a level below what risks Nuclear Winter. And we can do both without any reduction in liberty and, if nuclear build-down is done carefully, with an increase in security.

            Climate change is more complicated, but the risk can be reduced with only minimal loss of liberties and none of those of the basic sort. People will lose some of the "right to be left alone" as pollution controls become more rigorous and invasive, but there is no right to pollute. (I have a right to piss in the stream, as we used to say, only if the stream can clean up after me before it gets to humans and other critters that want to drink the water or take a swim.)

           If we really want to reduce the risks for Americans we can work on getting more people decent, affordable medical attention, reduce our production of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and improve our ability to respond to all sorts of lethal and otherwise harmful events, and not get hung up with  terrorism and crime. 

             Indeed, it's better to prevent a terrorist attack than to respond to one; but terrorist attacks are a whole lot less frequent than ordinary fires and explosions and high-speed car pileups. And robust response to all sorts of "Shit Happens" events can come with just about no costs in civil liberties.

            Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were more right than they may have intended with "Find the cost of freedom." Right: calculate the cost and do the bloody value judgments; and that's literally bloody: the cost of freedom has always involved innocent blood. 

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