It’s All about Freedom. Isn’t it?
Posted by Thomas J. Hubschman
It seems to boil down to this:
One side says, we have a constitutional right, a guaranteed freedom to own firearms. The occasional mass killings that occur are the regrettable price we pay for that freedom.
The other side says, I have a right to privacy, freedom from unconstitutional government surveillance. If that means we are less secure as a result, that is the price we pay for that freedom.
Trade-offs. If you want freedom, you must endure a certain degree of risk. Benjamin Franklin said those who relinquish their freedoms for the sake of greater security will have neither. One side quotes Franklin, the other cites the necessity for prudence, that this is a world more dangerous than Franklin ever dreamed of.
Freedom versus security is not a conflict resolvable by argument. It’s a matter of preference. No other nation I know of asserts as much freedom as does America in our constitution. The British, from whom we claim much of our law and political tradition, certainly does not. You dare not say or publish there what you may here without second thought. In many continental nations you may not deny certain aspects of history. Some of us think such restrictions are excessive, that, in our own case, pulling down statues of Confederate Civil War heroes goes too far. Others say those public displays are an insult to the very reasons that war was fought at such great cost to the nation.
Liberal or Conservative, we tailor our opinions about freedom to our own experiences. I would think some residents of Sandy Hook where so many schoolchildren were slain by a teenager armed with assault weapons might now favor more gun control than they did previously. And if a large-scale terrorist attack like 9/11 were to occur again, plenty of those who refuse to accept the government’s maintaining records of our telephone conversations and online activity would also see things differently.
Asserting freedoms is easy when it’s just a matter of mouthing a political bias. It’s another matter after we’ve watched what can happen as a result of those freedoms. Not to mention the difficulty involved in obtaining the facts with regard to the risks involved. Over the last ten years on average there have been about 56 deaths each year in the US from lawn mower accidents. 29 people died as the result of gun-wielding toddlers. 2 died as a result of Islamic terrorism. But the deadly lawn mower and bloodthirsty toddler don’t get much airtime on the evening news. We pick and choose our monsters, or rather they are chosen for us.
The gun lobby resists attempts to screen potential gun buyers more effectively, a reasonable policy it would seem for at least reducing the number of victims to insane gun owners. But any abridgment of a freedom, they would argue, is an assault on the freedom in principle. Others maintain that any intrusion into our private lives by the government unless sanctioned as necessary by a well-informed judge strikes at the heart of the Fourth Amendment.
Are both sides right? Is neither? Is the issue even resolvable, or is it a perennial source of contention that we must endure as a consequence of the constitution we have and the way we interpret it? The pendulum of freedom seems to swing one way, then the other. The period just before and after we entered the first world war was surely a low ebb for political freedom in this country, when any expression of disagreement with the president’s war propaganda could land you in jail. Other times the interpretation of our constitutional rights was at high tide and seemed permanently guaranteed.
The Supreme Court guarantees racial apartheid in one generation, denounces it in another. In every case the court takes up it’s supposedly the constitution that decides the matter, not the justices’ personal preferences. But members of the Supreme Court are not just men and women, they are political animals. And even if that doesn’t translate into obvious ideological bias, each has her or his own ideas of right and wrong and what’s in the nation’s best interest (or in some cases, his or her own). No definitive, permanent agreed constitution is possible given the fact of human nature, just inevitable argument about what a written document means and how literally it should be taken. Even the oldest religions have altered the content and interpretation of their dogmas over the centuries as the result of changing circumstances and personnel.
As is the case with so much else about democracy, it’s the worst of political systems — except for all the others. At least, it could be the best if we truly participated and could make our voices heard. Loss of representation by our elected bodies for what the majorities of the population want is the true crisis of our time. Assaults on our constitutional liberties are just instances of what such loss of representation can mean.