Sunday, May 4, 2014

Live Free or Die?

The obituary for Gabriel Garcia Marquez mentioned in passing that until the 1990s and the presidency of Bill Clinton, the State Department refused visas to the Mexican author because he had at one time been associated with a Communist organization. Our government believed that one way of defending ourselves against a Soviet takeover of the world was to refuse visas for visiting the US to people associated with Communist organizations. The defense against authoritarianism required limiting freedoms.

Since 9/11 we have, once again, sacrificed liberties for the sake of protecting ourselves against the threat of terrorism. The USA Patriot Act limited some legal protections against government surveillance. Our government has collected massive amounts of data about the phone calls of ordinary citizens and others facts about them. It has kidnapped terrorism suspects and tortured them in hidden prisons in such places as Romania. In more recent years, the Drone War has killed persons, including American citizens, who had not been tried and convicted of serious crimes. The NYC police department instituted systematic surveillance of Muslims and their institutions, at the same time that it began to stop and frisk African-Americans for no other reason than that they were black.

According to the Pew Trust surveys,  a large majority of Americans preferred increased government surveillance and reduction of civil liberties to greater susceptibility to terrorist attacks.

Whatever we may put on our license plates—those of the state of New Hampshire carry the legend “Live Free or Die”--the majority of Americans would rather live than die protecting their freedoms.

In the face of greater danger of lethal assaults, we are willing to compromise our liberties. “Live Free or Die” is for license plates only.

The horror of 9/11 was not only that thousands died but that most of them had no choice whether to live or die. Even those who did make that choice—the fire fighters and others who came to help—did not choose to die for our liberties and traditional institutions.

That choice however does confront the government officials from legislators to intelligence officials engaging systematically in illegal surveillance. They all choose life over freedom. So do most of the rest of us.

Not all Americans agree. The mostly Black young men and women of the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee who began in the late 1950s into the 1960s to integrate lunch counters and who tried to register Black citizens as voters were not deterred when some of their number were murdered.

They were genuine heroes who, unlike the rest of us, were willing to pay the ultimate price of freedom. Most of us are not that brave.