Sunday, September 11, 2011

On Trade Offs

I've probably told this story before.
It was at a meeting of something called the Inns of Court, an organization of lawyers and judges and law students, membership by invitation only designed to advance professionalism or some such thing.  (I don't know. I've never been invited to become a member.  Draw what conclusions you will.)
At each meeting some group of the members is responsible for a program.
On this evening, over drinks and steaks (and the requisite vegetarian option) the topic was the USA Patriot Act and other laws and rules and procedures enacted in the 4 or 5 years since that day.  The format was a debate between two invited guests:  me and the AUSA in charge of the Toledo office.  We decided that he'd go first.
He held up a copy of the Al Qaeda Training Manual.  He said.
This is the enemy.  They want to kill us.  They want to destroy us.  They will if we aren't ever vigilant.
Or something.  Actually, he talked for about 15 minutes about connecting dots and tapping phones and the usefulness of surveillance and the dangers of the guys with the training manual that he had in a binder and kept waving around.
I got up and talked about what we'd given up and about the abuse of power and how 911 morphed almost instantly into a blank check for the Justice Department and how terrorism was the excuse rather than the occasion and how taking off your shoes at the airport didn't really keep us safer.
After a bit more back and forth, which was friendly enough (his kid and mine had gone to the same grade school, they'd played t-ball together, we weren't friends, but we got along) but set out two dramatically different points of view, it was time for questions.
And so this one old lawyer stood up, looked at me, and said:
But what can you do to make me feel safer on an airplane?
For a moment I just stared at him.  Then I told him the truth.
I can't do anything to make you feel safer.

First, I'm just a lawyer and the legal director of the ACLU of Ohio.  I have no clout.  I have no power.  And I'm not a security expert.

Second, it's not really about making you feel safer.  How you feel is your problem.  The question is whether this stuff is actually making you safer.  If it's not, and there's no credible evidence that it is, and plenty that it isn't, and if it's sacrificing your freedom, then that should be a real problem.
Or something like that.
But of course, that's mostly what we've done over the years.  Try to make people feel safer.  And not just since 911.  Colubmine, after all, was two and a half years earlier, in 1999.  The Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed three years before that, in 1995.  They installed metal detectors at the entrance to the federal courthouse in Lubbock, Texas in the early 80s.
Those of us who remember the old days are fewer and fewer because the old days were further back than we think.  Before my time.  And before yours.  However old you are.
Because there's nothing new about the decision to trade a little freedom here for the illusion of safety there.
It was 1775 when Ben Franklin wrote
Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Franklin didn't add, though he could have,
And they lose both.

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