Freedom, security and Ben Franklin

Last night while cruising through the foggy mountains on the way home from a couple of… “gladitorial” Hellbound? screenings at Abilene Christian University, I caught the tail end of the first Fragile Freedoms lecture series on CBC Radio’s most excellent Ideas program. The speaker was British philosopher A. C. Grayling, who provided a brief survey of the philosophical origins behind modern ideas about individual rights and liberties in the West.

In his closing remarks, he quoted Benjamin Franklin, who said, “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

As someone who crosses the Canada/US border and flies frequently, the comment hit home, because every time I do either of those things, I am transformed from “Kevin Miller, average law-abiding citizen” to “Kevin Miller, potential terrorist and global criminal mastermind.” (The latter part would be a bit of a stretch if not for this.) In other words, for the sake of security, a certain measure of my freedom (and dignity) is taken away. I know, talk about First World problems. But you try taking off your belt and shoes, taking out your laptop and liquids and gels and putting them all away/back on again while wearing a cast on your left hand–after that cast has been swabbed for potential bomb-making materials, of course.

Minor inconveniences aside (I don’t want the plane I’m on to blow up in the sky either), as Grayling pointed out, the moment a government makes security more important than freedom, it’s all over, because now everything and everyone becomes a potential threat. Hence the “need” for preemptive strikes, the NSA vacuuming up every sniff of data they can find, the US government seeing a demon behind every door, grannies undergoing full body scans at airports and all sorts of other “necessary” evils.

I know what you’re thinking. H0w can we be free if we’re not secure? To which I respond, how can we be secure if we aren’t free? How long will it be before we adopt some sort of “pre-crime” system, as in Minority Report, where people are picked up for crimes they might commit? That may sound far-fetched, but if we continue down the road we’re on, it’s only a matter of time. All we’re waiting for is technology to catch up to our paranoia. And something tells me it may already be there…

Of course, this brings up a host of big questions, such as, “What is freedom?” and “What does it mean to be secure?” Secure from what? Secure to do what? As Thomas Merton once said,

To some men peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference. To others peace means the freedom to rob others without interruption. To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasure to feed those whom their greed is starving. And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure. Many men like these have asked God for what they thought was “peace” and wondered why their prayer was not answered. They could not understand that it actually was answered. God left them with what they desired, for their idea of peace was only another form of war.

Yikes. Those words certainly make me squirm. And I’m not even a Republican!

Just to be clear, I’m not trying to create a false dichotomy here–security vs. freedom. I think it’s more a question of ends vs. means. At the moment, the powers-that-be are convinced that freedom is the end, and the quest for security the means. I’m simply suggesting they could have things ass-backwards. After all, even if we go back to the Garden of Eden story, things were going along just fine until the desire for security entered the mix.

Not that I want to go all “Old Testament” on you, but judging from some of my encounters with the TSA and CBP, I’m not so sure some of their officers wouldn’t mind…

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" and "After..." In addition to his work in film, Miller has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • smrnda

    I think it’s a false dichotomy because ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ are vague, subjective words; people define them in ways that *work for them* so anybody is going to say their platform offers both *freedom and security* and that the other platform offers neither. Merton does an alright job pointing that out. It’s kind of how the people who are huge into the ‘right to fail’ rhetoric in the states are usually wealthy – the ‘right to fail’ means ‘the lack of a social safety net’ which really just means, in a concrete sense, lower taxes for them. Discussions on guns don’t just advocate that gun ownership is a freedom that will have some casualties, but has to be held out as a more or less magic cure for crime.

    My take is that we need to have more numerous, specific rights that are better defined so we’re dealing with concrete things and not abstractions.

    On minority report, that’s already the reality for lots of minorities in the US who are more or less guilty till proven innocent. I’m glad that stop-and-frisk was shot down by the courts, but I’m convinced that a loophole will be found to violate the civil liberties of the same people once again.

  • R Vogel

    SIDEBAR: I finally saw the movie yesterday, Kevin, (rented through Amazon) and it was fantastic! Watched it with my fundamentalist mother, and mostly religiously ambivalent wife and it sparked quite the spirited discussion afterwards. I was particularly impressed by (1) how calmly and thoughtfully my mother received it and (2) how engaged my wife was, who was raised Christian in the same fundie cult I was but doesn’t think much about theology. In fact the scene where you post a list of Bible verses which support each of the three views, she told me to pause it so we could look up and read each verse! I can’t tell you how uncharacteristic that was. Thank you. Since my son was born, these issues have become far more important to me since I know some day he will ask me about them and I want to have not answers but at least some guidance to help him work out his own thinking.

    • Kevin Miller

      Great to hear. Thanks! If you get a moment, please rate/review it on Amazon. Every bit counts.

      • R Vogel

        Done! May it multiply rentals 70 times 7!


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