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Liberty Over Safety

By Robert Parry
May 19, 2006

Until now, every generation of Americans has traded safety for liberty. From the Lexington Green to the Normandy beaches, from the Sons of Liberty to the Freedom Riders, it has been part of the American narrative that risks are taken to expand freedom, not freedoms sacrificed to avoid risk.

The Founders challenged the most powerful military on earth, the British army, all the while knowing that defeat would send them to the gallows. The American colonists spurned their relative comfort as British subjects for a chance to be citizens of a Republic dedicated to the vision that some rights are “unalienable” and that no man should be king.

Since then, despite some ups and downs, the course of the American nation has been to advance those ideals and broaden those freedoms.

In the early years of the Republic, African-American slaves resisted their bondage, often aided by white Abolitionists who defied unjust laws on runaways and pressed the government to restrict slave states and ultimately to eliminate slavery.

With the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves, the United States underwent a painful rebirth that reaffirmed the nation’s original commitment to the principle that “all men are created equal.” Again, the cause of freedom trumped safety, a choice for which Lincoln and thousands of brave soldiers gave their lives.

In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and into the Twentieth, the Suffragettes demanded and fought for extension of basic American rights to female citizens. These women risked their reputations and their personal security to gain the right to vote and other legal guarantees for women.

When fascist totalitarianism threatened the world in the 1930s and 1940s, American soldiers turned back the tide of repression in Europe and Asia, laying down their lives by the tens of thousands in countless battlefields from Normandy to Iwo Jima.

The march of freedom continued in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights fighters – both black and white – risked and sometimes lost their lives to tear down the walls of racial segregation.

For two centuries, this expansion of freedom always came with dangers and sacrifices. Yet, the trade-off was always the same: safety for liberty.

Reversed March

Only in this generation – only on our watch – has the march reversed.

Instead of swapping safety for liberty, this generation – traumatized by the 9/11 attacks and under the leadership of George W. Bush – has chosen to trade liberties for safety.

Instead of Patrick Henry’s stirring Revolutionary War cry of “give me liberty or give me death,” this era has Sen. Pat Roberts’s instant-classic expression of self over nation. “You have no civil liberties if you are dead,” the Kansas Republican explained on May 18 before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he chairs.  

Roberts’s dictum echoed through the mainstream media where it was embraced as a pithy expression of homespun common sense. But the commentators missed how Roberts’s preference for life over liberty was the antithesis of Henry’s option of liberty or death.

Roberts’s statement also represented a betrayal of two centuries of bravery by American patriots who gave their own lives so others could be free.

After all, it would follow logically that if “you have no civil liberties if you are dead,” then all those Americans who died for liberty were basically fools. Roberts’s adage reflects a self-centeredness, which would shame the millions of Americans who came before, putting principle and the interests of “posterity” ahead of themselves.

If Roberts is right, the Minutemen who died at Lexington Green and at Bunker Hill had no liberty; the African-Americans who enlisted in the Union Army and died in Civil War battles had no liberty; the GIs who died on the Normandy beaches or Marines who died at Iwo Jima had no liberty; Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights heroes who gave their lives had no liberty.

If Sen. Roberts is right, they had no liberties because they died in the fight for liberty. In Roberts’s view – which apparently is the dominant opinion of the Bush administration and many of its supporters – personal safety for the individual tops the principles of freedom for the nation.

This security-over-everything notion has emerged as the key justification for stripping the American people of their “unalienable rights,” liberties that were promised them in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

But the American people are now told that the President is exercising “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as long as the indefinite “war on terror” continues. Bush has been ceded these boundless powers with only a meek request from the populace that he make life in the United States a little safer from the threat of another al-Qaeda attack.

Discretionary Rights

So, Bush holds discretion over the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial, the right to know the charges against you and to confront your accuser, the protection against warrantless searches and seizures, the delicate checks and balances designed by the Founders, the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the power to wage war, even the right to freedom of speech.

In claiming “plenary” powers as Commander in Chief and arguing that the United States is part of the battlefield, Bush has asserted that all rights are his, that they are given to the people only when he says so, that the rights are no longer “unalienable.”

Like before the Declaration of Independence, the American people find themselves as “subjects” reliant for their rights on the generosity of a leader, rather than “citizens” possessing rights that can’t be denied. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The End of Unalienable Rights.”]

As a trade-off for accepting Bush’s unlimited powers, the American people have gotten assurances that Bush will make protecting them his top priority. Yet, the presidential oath says nothing about shielding the public from danger; rather it’s a vow to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Since George Washington first took the oath, it has been the Constitution that is paramount, because it enshrines the liberties that define America.

Within that presidential oath and within the nation’s historic commitment to freedom, there is no assurance against risk or danger. There is no government guarantee of safety, nor is there a promise that harm might not come to American citizens.

Indeed, it has been assumed by all previous generations of Americans – dating back to the beginning of the Republic and ending only with today’s fearful generation – that risk and danger were part of the price for maintaining and spreading freedom.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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