I wrote last week about privacy and my belief that we as a society might have to think a bit more clearly about where it's essential (e.g., background checks, medical information) and where it's fairly trivial (grocery-store purchases). I suggested that if we fail to distinguish between the two, and if we--a country at war--project some of the irrational hysteria onto the legitimate actions our government is taking to wage that war, we'll be making an already-difficult situation much worse. And our readers responded.
Bob DuCharme, who pegged my comments as both "snide" and "bitchy," offers this career advice: "Stick to technology policy, it's what you're paid to talk about." And Stacy Sullivan, noting "It's one thing to use technology to save 10 bucks a week at the grocery store with a swipe card and entirely another to allow the police sweeping powers to monitor, track, and detain citizens of this country who are thought to be accomplices of terrorists," asks, "Do you really think the Russians thought they'd lose all their rights to their own people at the beginning of the 20th century?"
As I write this, it's about 12 hours since the governor of California warned of "credible evidence" of an imminent attack on one or more of the state's major bridges. Early this morning, I saw a photo in the newspaper of a mother with her 11-year-old daughter waiting at a local hospital that offered to irradiate Halloween candy to alleviate parents' fears of anthrax contamination.
"It was 50 years ago and Joe McCarthy was running amok," writes Donald Bustell. "Times have changed. The threat is probably more real this time. But don't start whining when you realize that you've given away your freedoms in trade for the perception of 'security' and haven't written into the law a way to get them back." Good advice--but I don't fear the "government," its motives, or its interests.
"When I became a Quaker as an adolescent in the late 1960s, pacifism seemed to offer a compelling alternative to the perpetuity of brute force. ... We know now that there has been an ongoing violent campaign aimed at bringing down diverse nations, with none being more gloriously speckled than the U.S. People who try to hold certain American policies or culture responsible are trying to decorate the crimes of psychotics with synthetic political significance.... And the blasts of Sept. 11 should remind American pacifists that they live in that one place on the planet where change--in fact, peaceful change--seems most possible. It is better to sacrifice our ideals than to expect others to die for them."
--Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition With Scott Simon," in The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 11, 2001
Meanwhile, the death toll from anthrax is up to four; spores have been found in post offices, the U.S. Capitol, offices of the Supreme Court, the Food and Drug Administration, NBC, The New York Times, and other media companies. Descriptions of the contaminants have shifted from "crude" to "weapons-grade." It's all coming from the same place.
"We have the luxury of being nitpickers, second-guessers, armchair generals, etc.," says Bob Gaughan. "Most of us aren't in a position where we have to come up with a plan that could withstand the comments, sneers, etc., of our fellow nitpickers." Right, and that's why we have leaders--to make the decisions the rest of us are in no position to make.
The day before I wrote this, B-52s were used for the first time in the bombing of Afghanistan; a broad-based ground war seems imminent. Taliban officials continue to assert that the United States is mounting a "crusade" not against the Taliban and al-Qaida but against all of Islam. At the same time, our "friends" in Saudi Arabia are rattling their plastic sabers and telling us to focus more on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians while refusing to cooperate on freezing terrorists' assets. Ah, the comfort of friends.
Back at home, Howard Ires asks, "Re: supermarket discount cards: How are you going to feel when you can't get health and life insurance because you buy too much bacon?" And Bill Kesl looks inward: "Personal courage is directly proportional to the restrictions we allow to be placed on our personal freedoms and privacy. We don't need more brave soldiers; we need more courageous citizens." Many readers quoted the not-surprisingly prescient words of Ben Franklin: "Those that would sacrifice their freedom for safety will find they inherit neither."
It's an ugly world out there, folks. Like you, I wish it were otherwise, but that's not the case. This country--we, the people--need to quit selling ourselves and our institutions short: We can give our law-enforcement agencies the powers they need to find and vanquish these murderers from our country while still maintaining all of our hard-fought civil liberties, or we can watch more of our countrymen die around us as we pat ourselves on the back for not giving an inch on "privacy." And rest peacefully in the words of Allan Shoff: "The ultimate in privacy is the cemetery."
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