The Terrorists Have Won

Several events have transpired over the recent past which have continued to demonstrate just how far the basic civil liberties in the US have been weakened. This essay is a continuation of this discussion. A prior discussion is in the esssay Save Democracy. What is new is the ruling about private gun ownership and the willingness to create ex post facto legislation. Both of these are discussed after a brief summary of prior events.

The justification for enhanced security and the extra limits on civil liberties is not primarily to prevent physical attacks, but to defend our "way of life". As George Bush said, "they hate us for our freedoms".

One can debate the best methods to prevent physical attacks, but these are usually similar to defending against any form of lawlessness. Some combination of policing, intelligence gathering and observation. Any police official will explain that the goal of preventing, say, all armed robberies is impossible, the best one can do is to keep the level as low as possible. To expect otherwise in the case of politically motivated violence is unrealistic.

So to defend "our freedoms" the first thing that a society should do, one would think, was to maintain those freedoms that already exist. Otherwise the "terrorists have won". How has the record been in the US so far? I'll list just a handful of disturbing examples where the infringements on civil liberties have led us towards a society just like the ones we claim to oppose.

The main rule for a free society is that it be open and trusting. One always hears stories such as "when I was growing up we didn't even lock our front door". Has the incidence of housebreaking increased? No. What has happened is people no longer trust their neighbors.

We now have intrusive searches on airlines, trains and buses. Has the number of violent attacks on these services increased? No, yet every passenger is now viewed with suspicion, "if you see something, say something". Every forgotten briefcase by a harried businessman now becomes a potential terrorist threat. In the past 30 years there has been exactly one attack on the Long Island Railroad, by a paranoid schizophrenic. We lived with this risk of one incident out of millions of trips. The default was everyone was just trying to get where they were going, the same as you. Now everyone needs to be "watched".

When the British surveillance services were told to intercept mail of suspected German spies, they reacted with "gentleman don't read other people's mail". Now the government (and private companies) see nothing wrong with reading everybody's mail, and phone calls as well. The default is to suspect everyone, not to just leave people alone until there is some specific justification for action. This is the way East Germany worked, everyone was spied on, everyone had a file maintained by the STASI. Calumny, jealousy, revenge could lead to being reported and having your life turned upside down. Further since everyone knew that no one could be trusted, social interactions were all guarded and the cultural life of the state dried up.

Now the two, mentioned in the introduction:

The willingness by congress to provide retroactive immunity to telecoms engaged in illegal spying is not just about the loss of privacy, but it sets a precedent for ex post facto legislation. When laws can be created retroactively then democracy is over. Tomorrow we will create a law that anyone buying a coffee at Starbucks last week is a support of state "terrorism" (by Juan Valdez) and subject to punishment. How can you have a free society where things get forbidden after they are done? Even adhering to the government's directives at this moment is no guarantee as the show trials in China under Mao and the USSR under Stalin have shown. You cannot change the rules of a game once it has started, but the US is trying.

Lastly there is the Supreme Court gun ruling. The key element in this is not the conclusion, but the premise. The majority thinks that vigilantism is an appropriate model for a civilized society. One needs a gun in the home to protect against everyone else, those who can't be trusted, those that need to be searched at airports, those that need to have their email read, those who might have done something wrong in the past when it seemed OK. An open society doesn't need self-protection, that's why we have a police force.

This ruling wasn't about guns, it was about trust. The terrorists have won, we have given up our freedoms and civil liberties and become as paranoid and autocratic as the states we claim to be defending against.

"It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it."
-- An American major after the destruction of the Vietnamese Village Ben Tre

Click here to see all my essays in context.

If you have any comments or for further discussions email me at
Copyright © 2008 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.