Yesterday, President Obama spoke about how upset he was that U.S. intelligence agencies had not been able to stop a Nigerian man from attempting to blow up an airplane as it landed in Detroit. Obama said,
“I will accept that intelligence, by its nature, is imperfect, but it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged. That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it. Time and again, we’ve learned that quickly piecing together information and taking swift action is critical to staying one step ahead of a nimble adversary. So we have to do better — and we will do better.”
On the face of it, Obama’s insistence on better cooperation and analysis of intelligence gathered by U.S. spy agencies is reasonable. Who could oppose improvement, after all?
However, when I place the demand for these improvements in context, I become extremely concerned. The context is that the White House and Congress have already provided a radical increase in both the ability of the government to gather huge amounts of information, and its ability to analyze that information, with vastly improved communication between spy agencies. It was for this purpose that entities such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence were created. Now, Barack Obama is acting as if none of that ever happened, and that yet more investment in spy agencies is required.
Of course, when any government employee gets to work, we’d like that work to be as effective as possible. That includes government spies. However, the degree of effectiveness Americans are now expecting from government spy agencies is now so extreme that it suggests an absolute intolerance for failure.
The American people seem to have forgotten that the most glaring failure in this case was on the part of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He was an incompetent attacker, unable to properly handle his weapon. He only succeeded in burning himself. Airline passengers with no martial arts training were able to easily subdue him.
Americans are worrying that if things had gone differently, Abdulmutallab could have killed hundreds of people, blowing up that airplane. Why? Look at the facts, and it’s clear that no, Abdulmutallab could NOT have succeeded. Abdulmutallab couldn’t explode his way out of a paper bag. That this terrorist who couldn’t shoot straight is the best that Al Qaeda could recruit suggests that we really don’t have very much to worry about.
Yet, in response to this kid’s profoundly inept attempt at an attack, Americans are clamoring to give up their right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure. We’re talking about having strangers running their hands all over the bodies of people before they’re allowed to travel. We’re demanding electronic body scans that will allow security agents to look over every inch of travellers’ digitally unclothed body.
What’s more, we’re demanding more power for American spy agencies who already can, thanks to the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act, to track our personal online activities, our purchases, our health, our reading habits; to secretly enter our homes and businesses without ever telling us; and to conduct espionage on Americans based on their political and religious identities. The reason: Americans now expect the government to be able to find out about every conspiracy to commit every violent crime before the crime even happens. Americans are now begging to live in the monstrous world described in Philip Dick’s science fiction classic, The Minority Report. We now expect absolute protection from terrorism, and are willing to sacrifice anything to get that feeling of security – including the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, a part of the Bill of Rights, sets up a clear standard for searches and seizures: They have to have a particular target, based on evidence that points to a particular crime that’s been committed or is being planned. Most Americans nowadays, including the President and Congress, seem to believe that this part of the Bill of Rights was a bad idea.
That the founders of the United States passed the Fourth Amendment suggests that they had a different vision. They believed that freedom is more important than security. They looked at the facts of life, and concluded that no government can reasonably guarantee security. They saw that violent crimes continued even under the most autocratic governments. They didn’t believe that citizens should have the legal right of absolute protection from crime – note that there is no right of a crime-free life in the Constitution. Instead, they focused on people’s right to be free from the excessive burdens imposed by unreasonable law enforcement activities.
Most Americans can no longer identify with this freedom-loving perspective. They want absolute security, whatever the consequences. Will they get what they want?
We may well be moving close to an absolute security state, but we will not gain absolute security in exchange for the sacrifice of our liberty. Absolute security is impossible. In a nation of over 300 million people, in a world approaching 7 billion people, it is not reasonable to expect the government to keep a watch on every potential danger in the world. It is not reasonable to expect the government to piece together, in a matter of just a few weeks, that a young man from Nigeria is planning to put explosives down his pants and board a flight to the United States.
Terrorist attacks are going to happen – over and over again. Eventually, one of these attacks will succeed, even if we completely revoke every single freedom that the Constitution provides us.
An intelligent, mature, reasonable nation would understand the limits of security, and accept that it’s not possible for any government to prevent every terrible crime. At present, the American people are in no mood for such ideas – but if our democracy is to survive, they need to learn to grasp the value of freedom once again.
When he was campaigning to become President last year, Barack Obama promised to put an end to the politics of fear. However, in his reaction to the failed attack by Abdulmutallab, Obama has fully embraced the politics of fear.
That’s the politically easy thing to do. Few Americans want to hear that they’re going to have to accept that life of freedom is inherently insecure.
Did we elect Barack Obama because we wanted a President who would take the path of temporary expediency, as George W. Bush did? I hope that’s not what motivated voters to choose as they did, but regardless of what the American people want, it is President Obama’s duty as President to call the American people back to the cause of liberty, to remind them of the wisdom represented in the Bill of Rights. He has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, not an oath to impose security or an oath to remain popular.
Once again, Americans who are courageous enough to shake off the thrill of fear need to stand up and tell Barack Obama that we expect strong leadership in the restoration of constitutional liberty. Will you be among those who speak for freedom?