Would you rather be safe or free?

(It’s funny what 22 years can do to something you wrote. This chapter, incorporating two newspaper columns I wrote back in the day, may be the most chilling bit in my book Refuse to be Afraid.)

Would you rather be safe or free?

It’s been the central question in the United States of America for two decades now.

In April 1999 a couple of kids at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., committed an atrocity, shooting 35 students and teachers, killing 13 of them, before turning the guns on themselves. In the days immediately after, there was much talk about clamping down on the possession of guns and adding great layers of security to the classroom experience.

I wrote this in my newspaper column in the aftermath:

Would you rather be safe or free?

Those are the choices, you know. There are ways you can try to protect yourself and your children from the possibility that the events of Littleton, Colo., never again happen. But the only way to do it is to lock us all in cages.

You can have a society where no one tells you what church to attend, where no one monitors what you read, write or say, where no one keeps you from going to a Packers game or driving to see an old friend in Missouri.

But you run the risk that someone else may worship Satan or Hitler, that someone may read, write or say persuasively hateful things, that someone at the Packer game may try to sell you a $40 ticket for $250, that bad people will use the Interstate to transport illegal goods or kidnap your daughter.

So the solution is to regulate what church you can go to, what you read and write and say, and place checkpoints at city limits and state borders.

You can have a society where you are free to protect your property or defend your person, or to hunt and feed your family.

But you run the risk that someone with a sick mind will arm himself and kill you or your children.

So the solution is to make sure only the police and military have weapons.

You can have a society where, if you obey the law, no police officer or military unit will ever knock on your door and search through your personal belongings or drag you down to the county jail.

But you run the risk that your next-door neighbor is manufacturing narcotics in his basement or scheming to overthrow the government.

So the solution is a police state.

You can have a society where, if you are accused of a crime, no one can throw you in jail without proof, or torture a confession out of you, or force you to testify under oath that you did it — even if you did it.

But you run the risk that murderers will occasionally escape justice, or criminals get out of prison and commit new crimes.

So the solution is to lock us all up.

When you have a free society, there will be times when someone abuses his or her freedom and harms someone else, perhaps even kills someone else.

The only way to try to prevent such abuses is to take away our freedoms.

And the bad things will not go away.

Confiscate our guns, and criminals will use knives or bombs made of pipe or fertilizer — or steal guns — and we will be defenseless.

Regulate what the media reports, and you lose the right to know what’s happening. Regulate the Internet and you depend on the government to inform you. Regulate what singers can sing, writers can write, and painters can paint, and you begin to lose life itself.

And even then, you will not be safe. You will only have built a cage and crawled in. It will be easier for evil to find you when it decides to look.

So how to prevent future school shootings?

Teach children right from wrong. Teach them to cherish life and other living things. Teach them good choices from bad. And punish them when they do wrong, when they harm living things, when they choose badly.

Our nation, this bold experiment, has thrived because of the notion that the only limit on my freedom is that it not impose on yours. The most defining speech of our history concludes, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

Sometimes the people of the world look at America and says, “How can they tolerate such things!” But most of the time they envy America and wish to live in a society as tolerant as ours. Immigration has always outpaced emigration because of our promise.

We must live free. Or we die.

+ + + + +

Two years and five months later, 9/11 happened. This time the calls for greater security went far beyond the schoolhouse doors, and I found myself revisiting this theme. The fear in the air was palpable, but so was the anger and the desire to do something — anything — to make sure it never happened again.

It took me more than a week to overcome my own fear this time, the fear that readers would choose safety over freedom. I had already been raked over a few coals for questioning the wisdom of passing the USAPATRIOT Act while emotions were still running high, so I wasn’t sure how readers would react to these thoughts. In late October 2001, I decided I’d refuse to be afraid, and I wrote:

The question, “Would you rather be safe or free?” is more relevant today than ever before.

We can be as safe as humanly possible if we are willing to give up our freedom and privacy. Just let security personnel pry into your bag, your car trunk, pat you down, monitor your telephone calls and your mail and your e-mail, track your purchases and the company you keep and the books you read and the TV shows you watch, and keep a camera on you 24 hours a day, and you will probably be safe from harm.

In Ray Bradbury’s most famous work, Fahrenheit 451, about a dreary world where it is illegal to own books or you and they will be burned, he even notes that people voluntarily relinquish their freedom for the comfort of safety, or in the context of the book, happiness.

The idea was that books exposed you to contrary beliefs that hurt people.

“It didn’t come from the government down,” a character explains. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation and minority pressure carried the trick … Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time …”

The common consensus is that on Sept. 11, the question became more than hypothetical. We have sent soldiers abroad to protect our freedom while launching a debate about how far to restrict our freedom to keep America safe.

And for the most part, people are cheerfully surrendering their liberty. When Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was the only senator who said, in effect, “Wait a minute, this antiterrorism bill might be used to harm freedom of innocent people at home, I can’t vote for this,” it was everyday citizens, not the government, who cried out against him.

When this writer wrote a couple of lines praising Feingold for that vote, it was not the government who took us to task, it was a local radio personality, who added, “Maybe they want to get one of those anthrax letters over there.”

On Oct. 8, 2001, Larry Ellison, founder and chief executive officer of Oracle Corp., wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the time may have come to issue everyone a national ID card.

“On the face of it, issuing ID cards does seem a significant step,” Ellison wrote. “Trusting government to maintain a database with our names, addresses, places of work, amounts and sources of income, assets, purchases, travel destinations, and more, seems a huge leap of faith.

“But we should remember that these databases already exist, and that we willingly helped in their creation.”

He goes on to say that by creating a huge, credit-card style, government database to track each of us — and Oracle has “generously” offered to give the government the necessary software for free — we can ensure our safety.

“Only by giving our intelligence and law enforcement agencies better tools can we expect to save life and liberty together,” Ellison said.

Save life, yes. Liberty? Well, would you rather be safe or free? The database could alert the police that you checked the Quran and the Unabomber’s book out of the library. Does that make you a suspect or someone who wants to understand your enemy?

Forget the ID card — the technology now exists to implant a microchip in a person. Perhaps we would all be safer if we “forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he has the mark.”

Ellison is said to have pitched his idea to Attorney General John Ashcroft, a devout Pentecostal who surely has read the book of Revelation often enough to know when he is on the wrong side.

The House of Representatives wisely added a five-year expiration date to the brave new police powers in the antiterrorism bill, to give us all a chance to review how well they have worked.

It’s a trick question — we can be safe and free, if the authorities are required to give us back our liberty after the danger has passed. Do you think they’ll be willing to give it back?

A few more years have gone by, and more than one senator have now questioned the wisdom behind that antiterrorism law, but we’re still waiting to get those freedoms back. Fear can be that powerful.

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