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No conflict between liberty and security

By Alex Epstein
web posted August 12, 2002

Most Americans, including our politicians, continue to believe the insidious proposition that we must "strike a balance" between liberty and security. Even though the House's new homeland security bill specifically prohibits the President's proposals for national IDs and for "Operation TIPS" -- a program to enlist our phone and cable workers to monitor us for "suspicious activity" -- Americans have stated in poll after poll that they are willing to sacrifice some of their liberty in order to reduce the threat of terrorism. This means that the possibility of our being kept under surveillance by civilian spies or being tracked via national IDs -- or being subject to even worse infringements on our rights -- may lie only one terrorist attack away. This is an ominous prospect for what was once not only the freest, but the safest country on earth.

But the choice between a terrorized free country and a less-terrorized police state is a false alternative. There is at root no conflict between the values of liberty and security.

Liberty and security are not opposing goals; to the contrary, the second is a means to the first. A proper government exists to protect the freedom of its citizens, by securing their individual rights. The security relevant in this context is the security from the only thing that can violate our rights: the threat of (initiated) force. A proper government uses its police powers -- both domestic and military -- to prosecute those who attack its citizens' liberty, whether the attackers are criminals at home or hostile states abroad.

The end that security serves -- liberty -- delimits the type of action government may take. It cannot, for instance, throw everyone in prison, in the name of securing Americans against the possibility of robbery or murder.

The individual's freedom cannot be safeguarded by being abrogated. A government that arbitrarily uses its police powers is destroying the very value it is supposed to be securing -- as every police state in history has shown.

Before using its police powers -- e.g., to question suspects, to place them under surveillance, to arrest them, to try them, or to attack enemy nations -- the government must have objective evidence of the use, or threat, of force. This principle applies even during wartime -- though the standards of evidence or procedures of prosecution may legitimately change. For instance, when certain countries support terrorists who are trying to destroy us, we are justified in extensively screening all immigrants (or even prohibiting immigration) from those nations. Similarly, in wartime, we are justified in summarily imprisoning or executing known enemy operatives on our soil without public trial. Contrary to many "civil libertarians," protecting liberty does not consist in admitting Saudi citizens into our country as if they were Swiss or in giving Osama bin Laden a trial on Court TV. Such policies would only strengthen the demonstrable threats to our liberty.

The persistence of the terrorist danger is a result of our government's failure to act on the evidence it already has. We know that terrorists are the agents of certain militant Islamic organizations -- such as al-Qaida, Hezbollah, and Hamas -- which use terrorism as a tactic to destroy the non-Islamic West. And we know that these groups function only through the assistance of certain nations, such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Yet Washington takes no military action against those governments, and even cravenly hails some of them as "allies" in the war on terrorism. It is our government's continuing appeasement of these enemies -- not its failure to track our every movement or to monitor our every conversation -- that is jeopardizing our security.

Why do our leaders continue to coddle those who create the terrorist threat, while proposing to protect us by treating all people as equal suspects in a massive game of terrorist Clue? Not because they believe that this policy will work -- these same people are declaring that future terrorist assaults are inevitable -- but because they dread the negative "world opinion" that would follow if we named and attacked our Islamic enemies. Our leaders find it easier to debate how much to sacrifice the liberty they are charged with defending than to take the principled action necessary to secure it.

America faces a choice, not between liberty and security, but between appeasement and security. To protect America, and to preserve an America worth protecting, our government must identify -- and vanquish -- the real threats to both our security and our liberty.

Alex Epstein is a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) in Irvine, California. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Send comments to reaction@aynrand.org.

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