The Boston Marathon bombing followed the next day with a reported attempt to attack a U.S. Senator’s office with a deadly chemical known as ricin, are stark reminders about the dangers our nation faces going into the future.
Just as after 9/11, it is not unusual to seeing heavily armed soldiers and police standing guard on the streets of many of our major cities. I personally have friends who serve as Capitol police officers and in other protective services who are working overtime to keep our lawmakers safe from the threat. They are good people.
However, while comforting to some, the prospect of video game like warriors toting real assault weapons around Washington, D.C. gives me a disquieting reminder of how I felt in Mexico City in 1984, when it was not unusual to see AK47 wielding intimidators patrolling the city.
Mexico City security had an underlying tension. A pervading sense overwhelmed the city that the government was not armed to the teeth for the protection of the people, but instead to protect itself from the people.
The relationship of the government and the people was starkly different from anything I had previously experienced. In Taxco, Mexico, a young man and I were talking about the U.S. presidential elections and he asked why money was spent on elections at all when they were all fixed anyway?
It is often said that to appreciate America, one only has to visit another country, and I certainly found that to be true.
However, the freedom we take for granted is difficult to hold. The public’s never ending desire for security and the government’s willingness to provide the illusion of it, always clash against the very personal liberties that are the foundational principles of our nation.
There will be those who use tragedies like the heartbreaking attacks at the Boston Marathon and the Capitol Hill ricin mailing to justify additional technological surveillance of the U.S. citizenry, further restrictions on speech through communications monitoring as well as the ongoing attempts to create a pathway to confiscating firearms in the future.
As tragic as a bomb in Boston with the deaths and maiming of innocents is, the greater tragedy would be if the governmental reaction to those events effectively turns our nation into a 21st century version of the armed camp that Bostonians experienced during the Revolutionary War.
Neither a bomb maker, nor a terrorist pilot determined to kill thousands, and not even a deranged kid who invades an elementary school destroying precious little ones can destroy America, the only thing that can make our nation more like Mexico City in 1984 is how Congress reacts to these events.
The temptation is to do something, and that always means increasing government’s intrusive powers.
We have already seen the effects of these reactions after 9/11, funding from Homeland Security has turned Andy Griffith’s sheriff’s office into something out of Robocop with sophisticated command centers, heavily armed tactical vehicles, traffic cameras and in some places surveillance drones. Barney Fife has his form fitted Kevlar suit and multiple clips full of ammo at the ready just in case Goober and Floyd get out of hand.
Even more concerning, a report by U.S. Senator Ted Cruz outlines many ways that the Obama Administration has been pressing against civil liberties under the guise of providing security. The Administration has gone so far that the U.S. Supreme Court has had to smack them down repeatedly.
One of the most egregious cases (United States v.Jones) was an attempt by the federal government to place GPS devices on vehicles and track the movements of U.S. citizens without any probable cause of wrong doing. I don’t know why the feds want to watch granny go to the beauty shop, but the fact the government wants to monitor each of our movements without needing to justify it for a law enforcement purpose should send shivers up the spines of every right-thinking American.
While the Administration is continuously straining the limits of their powers, Congress faces increased pressure to “do something” in the face of the recent tragedies.
And they should do something. Rather than pass new empowering legislation, they should demand the Obama Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security explain how they see the conflict of individual freedom and securing the nation.
Congress should force this debate about freedom versus security into the open forum of public discussion and force the Obama Administration to justify each and every step they have taken that undermines our civil liberties.
They should also review laws like the National Defense Authorization Act and the Patriot Act that authorize these encroachments and roll back those that threaten individual liberties. And they should reject all attempts to extend or expand government power and authority offered under the guise of increased security.
During these perilous times with images of carnage on our computer screens, Congress should proceed mindful of Benjamin Franklin’s admonition that, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
These are indeed dangerous times. However, the real danger is not from bombers and terrorists. The real danger is from how our government reacts to them.
Rick Manning (@rmanning957) is the vice president of public policy and communications for Americans for Limited Government.