Sunday, July 20, 2008

Security Isn't Free, Either

I once heard a Harvard professor give a talk describing the yumminess vs. safety scale for food regulation. Yummy food (yes, I’m quoting here) is frequently unsafe, and safe food rarely yummy. Head to the Texas border, he said, to see it in action. The same ingredients are used in burritos on either side of the border, but the Mexican version, with its unpasteurized cheese and fresher, unmedicated chicken, bursts with both flavor and, occasionally, Salmonella. The American version is recognizable as a burrito but has little taste in common with its more daring cousin. We’ve sacrificed some deliciousness in favor of safety.

Turn now to the news media, wherein, several times a week, in the midst of debating the war in Iraq, a TV pundit draws an indignant breath and intones, “Freedom isn’t free, you know.” The point, however self-righteously delivered, is well taken: while we’re at home enjoying the myriad privileges afforded us by our open and thriving society, men and women in uniform are giving their lives that this should be so.

The Bush administration daily levies the argument that they need increased power “to secure our freedoms” and “protect innocent lives.” We must have warrantless wiretapping on the instantaneous basis of need; we must allow the search of individual library records – to do anything less would compromise our safety. We put our liquids in 3 oz. containers and raise our hands above our sides and wonder nervously where the line will be drawn.

It turns out that, just like safe food, security isn’t free either. In this case, though, the price is paid in freedom.

Consider also that more than 4,000 American troops have been killed in Iraq, with more than 30,000 wounded and as many as 600,000 Iraqi deaths. We spend $725 million dollars a day to “fight them over there so that we don’t have to fight them here”, a plain reference to the security we gain from our efforts. Assuming that that argument is valid, is it worth the price?

How many Americans would live fuller and freer lives if we used that money and effort for freedom rather than security? The opportunities to do so are manifold: schools could be built; tuberculosis cases could be detected; economic stimulus checks could be increased; community centers could be heavily endowed; Pell grants could be funded at record levels; residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward could be helped to move back in; veterans could be offered medical care at non-VA hospitals.

All of us want to prevent the next terrorist attack on the United States. Any one of us would sacrifice his or her own life to save thousands. But as a society, would we endanger our children’s educations to prevent 3,000 deaths? Would we compromise the American dream by cracking down on immigration and discouraging foreign visitors? Would we send our sons and daughters to uncertain death? What about to prevent 6,000 American deaths? Or 50,000? Such questions are the stuff of nightmares and of responsible government, and the abilities to humanely understand, resolve and – most of all – explain their nuances are the differences between great leaders and tyrants.

So no, security is not free, but many are the simpletons in power who imply (and maybe even believe) that it is. Our leaders know that every ounce of security we claim is paid for with a tax on our freedoms, but the invocation of sacred, unimpeachable freedom is often too great for them to resist. Beware any politician who would stop at nothing to protect our freedoms, for these are the men and women most likely to trample them underfoot.

Traditionally, we defer to anyone touting an interest in our protection. Protect our bodies and our wealth, he or she likely means, but we would do well to remember that such protections are not without cost, and that that cost is paid in our freedoms – freedoms whose protection, in the end, is up to us.

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