How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice to gain a security that can never be absolute? That is the question we must ask ourselves, as shock and anger settle deeply over Boston.
Naturally, it was only a question of time until the summons came: We need to install more cameras in cities, Republican politicians in the U.S. declared. Hurry up with data preservation, demanded the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) in Germany. And a member of the U.S. Congress even had the idea of only allowing people to attend major events if they had registered beforehand on a website — the way tourists to the U.S. must now do before they visit.
The executive branch has no difficulty claiming more rights for itself after events such as those in Boston. We saw this after the attacks on September 11, 2001 transformed the “land of the free” into “1984.” Since then, the police closely monitor individuals that buy certain books. When enough of these books are appropriately suspicious, the FBI will pay the reader a visit. The executive branch of government can order searches of private residences without court approval and hold suspects in custody for months without granting them their right to an attorney. It can use evidence in a trial that the plaintiff cannot reply to because keeping the information secret is in the interest of national security. A report uncovered a few days ago that the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA had even kidnapped and tortured people thought to be terrorists without being required to give an account of it to anyone.
Despite all these measures — the billions of dollars spent yearly for “homeland security,” 19 intelligence agencies, hundreds of informants and hundreds of thousands of wiretapped phone calls and intercepted emails — two bombs could not be prevented from exploding at a major event. We therefore need to ask ourselves soberly, in spite of the shock at the attack and the rage over the death of an eight-year old boy, whether such strikes do not need to be accepted as the price for our remaining freedoms.
Security and freedom are natural antitheses, even though some argue that one is required in order to have the other. Only those who are secure can live free of fear, and thereby be truly free.
But what kind of freedom is that? One in which the state knows everything about every individual citizen, in which it can wiretap all of our conversations, read all of our emails and demand that we walk through a full body scanner before every subway ride, every concert, every movie or visit to the theater? And all of this is justified by the absurd argument that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.
How much more all-powerful do we want to make the police state? Do we all really want to pre-register before a large event so that police can make sure there are no suspicious persons among the attendees? And who determines at what point a person should be deemed suspicious? In the U.S., tens of thousands are on the no-fly list (forbidden to fly on commercial airliners) because they are considered terror suspects. No one tells them why they are on the list; for some of them, having criticized the Iraq War was enough. At the same time, they are given no opportunity to file suit for removal from the list or to defend themselves against the charges.
We fought a painful and bloody battle for the freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our gradual surrender of liberties in favor of a security that can never be absolute is a betrayal of the tens of thousands who have laid down their lives for these basic rights. Government action must at all times be predictable and legally verifiable, and the state must always abide by these basic rights and freedoms.
Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, explained in 1775: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
That is valid today more than ever.
Edited by Eva Langman