The Cost of “Safety”

I read a recent email on Dave Farber’s Interesting People mailing list that surprised me somewhat. The email was in reference to the extreme level of phone tapping used by the FBI in fighting the “war on terror”, but the thing that surprised me was not the content of the email but the quotation the author, Ken DiPietro, referred to in the email. The quotation reads as follows:

Those who would give up ESSENTIAL LIBERTY to purchase a little TEMPORARY SAFETY, deserve neither LIBERTY nor SAFETY.

The quotation is generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but may be due to Richard Jackson or another member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Irrespective, much has changed in the nature of the United States in the last two and a half centuries. Given the way in which the current US government has continually encroached on the liberties of US citizens and non-citizens alike over the last few years, I am hugely surprised that I have never seen or heard this quotation used by anyone opposing the current government.

I don’t know what context the quotation was originally used, so that may well explain why it’s been left to languish out of the spotlight, but I doubt that given the current political climate. The very reason the current government is able to infringe upon the “essential liberties” of its citizens is widespread ignorance and the fear it breeds. Were the quotation’s context not politically relevant to a pro-liberty politician, that self-same ignorance could allow the quotation and it’s possible originator to wow millions of people into a different viewpoint.

Unfortunately, I think that’s just a pipe dream, despite being an interesting thought experiment. The nature of life in the US has changed too much since the 1750’s, when the quotation made it into print, for it to have the same effect. The fervour with which people fought for freedom has disappeared. 9/11 made people realise that their freedoms and liberties could be taken away: freedom is taken as a given and the urge to fight for liberty has been misdirected. Instead of pursuing personal liberties in the US, people have been recruited to generate “freedom” for Iraqis and fight against terror as opposed to for freedom. So the quotation still raises an interesting question: what price is the US truly paying for its temporary safety?

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