Thankfully, a solid majority of the U.S. House of Representatives understood that we are still at war, and that there is still a need to conduct the wartime surveillance and searches authorized by that act. Those representatives voted yesterday to fully reauthorize the PATRIOT Act. Unfortunately, a surprising number of Republicans voted against reauthorization, so now the bill will have to come before the House under rules that will allow for amendments, and many Republicans intend to offer or support amendments that will dilute or remove key provisions of the Act.
Although the implementation of such authority to wiretap or search personal conversations and conduct carries the risk of making mistakes that could embarrass or harass innocent individuals—and I am sure mistakes have been made—it is a testament to the professional work of the men and women in our defense, intelligence and homeland security establishment, that few if any of us have been, or know anyone who has been, subject to surveillance or search under this Act. In fact, the lawsuits that have been brought against the Act have been brought by people who thought they could have been, or could be searched or wiretapped, but who had no proof that they had been. This is a far different experience from those who, during past conflicts, really had their liberties trampled through arrests, mass suspension of civil liberties, or mass detentions.
However, there are those who say that it doesn’t matter how professionally the authority has been exercised, because any compromise of liberty—no matter how theoretical or attenuated, and regardless of the existence of a war—is indefensible. These people then love to spout the following quote in support of their position that the Founders would never agree to such limits on their liberties:
Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
Those who use this quote in this way are just plain wrong. In fact, the circumstances that led to the making of that statement show it was never intended to address this type of issue.
This quote appeared in the preface to a work published in London by Benjamin Franklin in 1759, for the purpose of educating members of Parliament and other political leaders about the need to support the defense of the colonies against the French and their Native American allies during the Seven Years’ War (what we often refer to as “the French and Indian War”). Although the quote is often attributed to Franklin, its actual authorship is unclear, because it comes from a letter prepared in 1755 by the colonial Assembly of Pennsylvania and addressed to the colonial Governor.
In 1755, the colonists that had settled western Pennsylvania had come under constant attack from French forces, and the local tribes aligned with the French. The colonists’ situation had become dire, so they asked for money from the colonial government to fund the purchase of arms for themselves, or to pay for arming local tribes that were loyal to the British, in order to defend their homes and settlements against further attack. The Assembly did not have the resources for such an expenditure, so it prepared the letter to the Governor, in which the Assembly asked the Governor to obtain funding from the Penn family for the defensive arms.
Remember that Pennsylvania contained a large number of Quakers and others who opposed armed conflict. Among these groups, opposition to such funding quickly arose. They advocated that peace could be achieved through negotiation and trade with the Native American tribes loyal to the French, rather than through armed aggression.
The sentence contained in the Assembly’s letter was meant as a derisive response to the pacifist. It was intended to challenge the notion that the survival of the liberty of the colonists could be allowed to hinge on the success of appeasing the enemy tribes. In fact, the proper way to read the quote would be to reconstruct it as follows:
Those who would buy temporary safety, and avoid defending their liberty, by appeasing the enemy, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Understood in this way, the statement by the Assembly is a declaration for the essential right or “liberty” of self-defense—individually and collectively—in a time of war. It is consistent with the position taken by Lincoln, FDR, and George W. Bush when our country has come under attack. Moreover, it is consistent with the swift, if not more extreme measures the Washington and Adams Administrations took in the face of potential civil war and war with France—and they were Founding Fathers. The statement does not defend neutering the ability of the country to defend itself, so some of us can rest at night believing that our phone calls to Europe, or our public library accounts, are secure from government surveillance to stop a wartime attack.
Just as I’ve said in prior posts that we need to grow-up and take responsibility for our selves and our communities if we are ever to dig ourselves out of the domestic whole we are in, we need to grow-up and realize that we are still at war. War requires sacrifice and a commitment to defend yourself, your neighbor and your country. That sacrifice and commitment means that sometimes you will need to take actions that would not be necessary or tolerated in peace time. If you are not willing to defend yourself, your neighbor or your nation in this way, then you deserve neither the liberty nor the safety you crave.
To those Representatives who voted to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act, and to those who support them, I say “thank you, and keep up the fight.” To those who oppose reauthorization to protect an international phone call or library check-out you might make someday, I say “grow-up, and thank your lucky stars that our parents and grandparents weren’t this selfish.”