Last week’s announcement that the terrorist threat warning level has been raised in parts of New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., has led to dramatic and unprecedented restrictions on the movements of citizens. Americans wishing to visit the U.S. Capitol must, for example, pass through several checkpoints and submit to police inspection of their cars and persons.
Many Americans support the new security measures because they claim to feel safer when the government issues terror alerts and fills the streets with militarized police forces. As one tourist interviewed this week said, “It makes me feel comfortable to know that everything is being checked.” It is ironic that tourists coming to Washington to celebrate the freedoms embodied in the Declaration of Independence are so eager to give up those freedoms with no questions asked.
Freedom is not defined by safety. Freedom is defined by the ability of citizens to live without government interference. Government cannot create a world without risks, nor would we really wish to live in such a fictional place. Only a totalitarian society would even claim absolute safety as a worthy ideal, because it would require total state control over its citizens’ lives. This doesn’t stop governments, including our own, from seeking more control over and intrusion into our lives. As one Member of Congress stated to the press last week, “people who don’t want to be searched don’t need to come on Capitol grounds.” What an insult! The Capitol belongs to the American people who pay for it, not to Congress or the police.
It is worth noting that the government rushes first to protect itself, devoting enormous resources to make places like the Capitol grounds safe, while just beyond lies one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation. What makes Congress more worthy of protection from terrorists than ordinary citizens?
To understand the nature of our domestic response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, we must understand the nature of government. Government naturally expands, and any crises whether real or manufactured serve to justify more and more government power over our lives. Bureaucrats have used the tragedy of 9/11 as an excuse to seize police powers sought for decades, such as warrantless searches, Internet monitoring, and access to bank records. It should be no surprise that the recently released report of the 9/11 Commission has but one central recommendation: bigger government and more spending at home and abroad.
Every new security measure represents another failure of the once-courageous American spirit. The more we change our lives, the more we obsess about terrorism, the more the terrorists have won. As commentator Lew Rockwell of the Ludwig von Mises Institute explains, terrorists in effect have been elevated by our response to 9/11: “They are running the country. They determine our civic life. They shape our private life. They decide how public resources are spent. They may dictate who gets to be the next president. It should be obvious that the government doesn’t object. Not at all. The government benefits, by getting ever more reason for ever more money and power.”
Every generation must resist the temptation to believe that it lives in the most dangerous time in American history. The threat of Islamic terrorism is real, but it is not the greatest danger ever faced by our nation. This is not to dismiss the threat of terrorism, but rather to put it in perspective. Those who seek to whip the nation into a frenzy of fear do a disservice to a country that expelled the British, fought two world wars, and stared down the Soviet empire.
Liberty is lost through complacency and a subservient mindset. When we accept or even welcome automobile checkpoints, random searches, mandatory identification cards, and paramilitary police in our streets, we have lost a vital part of our American heritage. America was born of protest, revolution, and mistrust of government. Subservient societies neither maintain nor deserve freedom for long.
Ron Paul is a Republican congressman from Texas.