Living in any society involves a curtailment of liberty, but citizens in each era have to make informed choices about which freedoms to give up and why.
This week, the US Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act or, to use its complete name, “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-Collection and Online Monitoring Act.” Written in convoluted legalese, this piece of legislation modifies existing legislation to establish a new process through which the US government can obtain business records to protect Americans against terrorism and to carry out intelligence activities. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, who once sponsored the USA PATRIOT Act, was a co-sponsor of this new act. In his words, the purpose of the new act is “to rein in” the US government, which had exceeded the powers assigned to it by the USA PATRIOT Act.
Sensenbrenner is a Republican who represents Wisconsin’s richest district. He went to a private high school and then graduated from Stanford, the uppity expensive school on the West Coast that has set out to rival Harvard. Sensenbrenner has been in the House of Representatives since 1978 and tried to impeach the philandering Bill Clinton for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Needless to say, it is no surprise that the venerable Sensenbrenner was the man who introduced the USA PATRIOT Act in the Congress on October 23, 2001. What is surprising is that even Sensenbrenner was aghast by an “out of control” National Security Agency (NSA) that answers to President Barack Obama, a Democrat who once wanted to close down the infamous Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.
The Justice Department blurb about the USA PATRIOT Act is that it is all about preserving the life and liberty of Americans by protecting them against terrorism. A full reading of this act reveals that it gives far too much power to the government without adequate legislative oversight or judicial review. It was drafted in the post-9/11 paranoia that gripped the United States. Not since the British burnt the White House on August 24, 1814, had the mainland of the US been attacked so spectacularly. Even Pearl Harbor happened a long way away. So, a hysterical overreaction was inevitable, but the fact that the act was repeatedly renewed without discussion or debate is frightening.
Parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, including the infamous section 215 that gave the NSA the power to collect phone records of millions of Americans, were due to expire on June 1, 2015. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, put senators under the gun by delaying the discussion on the USA PATRIOT Act to the last minute. He wanted them to vote for the act in its entirety. Senator Rand Paul killed this planned extension by attempting a filibuster, a procedure that allows legislators to delay or prevent a vote on a bill by giving unending speeches. Paul spoke for 10 hours and 31 minutes, claiming that this was a time when “fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer.”
Paul, who is running for president, is right about fear and complacency. Those in power are afraid and the voters don’t care. John Oliver, the Englishman from humble roots who made it to Cambridge and has now become a cultural icon in the US, captured the complacency that Paul refers to in his inimitably witty show. As he pointed out, few Americans know about Edward Snowden, the man who created the brouhaha about the US government snooping on its own citizens by revealing NSA activities in 2013. News shows interrupt legislators discussing the infamous section 215 to feature Justin Bieber.
The fundamental issue here is liberty. This has always been a tricky idea. For instance, most of us have the freedom to listen to music. However, even in the most laissez faire societies, listening to loud music at 1am is not quite welcome. Living in any society involves some curtailment of freedom, even something as basic as listening to music. The state formalizes this implicit restraint on freedom through law. There are many arguments for curtailing individual freedoms. Those like Thomas Hobbes have a grim view of the world and believe that life is “nasty, brutish and short” in the absence absolute power in the hands of a sovereign. Executive authority forges order out of chaos. Such a view is particularly popular in places like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Yet others with a more benign view of human nature believe that individuals can manage to live harmoniously together without the heavy hand of the state. The idea of liberty or freedom has been powerful enough to inspire people like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. In the words of Isiah Berlin, a great philosopher of the 20th century, freedom is a protean word with “more than two hundred senses of it recorded by historians of ideas.” It goes without saying that each era demands a fresh discussion on freedom because the changing nature of power raises new questions.
Similar questions pertain to the NSA, which has access to records of emails, phone calls and all kinds of personal information. Does the NSA need a bulk collection of private data to protect US citizens? In fact, the bigger question pertains to what is it that comprised protecting US citizens and what the government can and cannot do. Jon Stewart, the sage in motley whom many Americans trust for their news, rightly points out the ridiculous inconsistencies in American discourse. Extending health care is executive overreach, but spying on citizens is fine. Even as parts of the USA PATRIOT Act expired, the USA FREEDOM Act promptly renewed the expired parts with some token safeguards.
Paul’s filibuster generated headlines but not debate. There are key questions that remain unanswered. What is the balance between liberty and security? What do the two words even mean today? Do the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” imply access to a healthy life or just safety from a terrorist attack?
In Nigeria, such questions are staring Muhammadu Buhari, the newly elected president, in his face. An Amnesty International report found that the Nigerian military had detained 20,000 boys and men since 2009. Of these, 7,000 are dead. This means that of the 17,000 people killed in northeast Nigeria since 2009, the military is responsible for 41% of the deaths. The Nigerian military has claimed the report is “biased and concocted.” It makes the same argument that the NSA does to avoid scrutiny and retains its powers. The military is merely operating to “save citizens from abuse of their rights by mindless terrorists.” These are arguments that governments in countries like Russia, Egypt and Pakistan routinely parrot.
Governments have long sought greater powers to fight wars and defeat terrorists. During both World Wars, even democracies curtailed liberty significantly. In the US, 127,000 citizens of Japanese descent found themselves in concentration camps. They lost their property and possessions but, unlike the Jews in Nazi Germany, they largely escaped with their lives. The McCarthy era during the height of the Cold War is notorious for the US version of Soviet purges when many upstanding Americans were hounded out of their jobs. Those deemed ideologically suspect suddenly found their lives and livelihoods under threat. Seven years ago, the British government spuriously used anti-terrorist legislation to take over Icelandic bank assets at the height of the financial crisis.
Americans would do well to remember that King George III considered George Washington to be a terrorist and their government considered Nelson Mandela the same. Terrorism more often than not has political, social and economic roots. Addressing them takes time, energy and money. More importantly, it requires the kind of wisdom that Britain, Ireland and the US demonstrated when bringing peace to Northern Ireland. It is high time for an honest conversation not only on liberty and security, but terrorism and war.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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