It's un-American to give up liberties in hope of security

February 19, 2006|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON — THE ENEMIES OF FREEDOM WILL BE DEFEATED.

- PRESIDENT BUSH, 2005

WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US.

- POGO, 1971

WASHINGTON -- The following happened in the United States of America on Feb. 9 of this year.

The scene is the Little Falls branch of the Montgomery County Public Library in Bethesda. Business is going on as usual when two men in uniform stride into the main reading room and call for attention. Then they make an announcement: It is forbidden to use the library's computers to view Internet pornography.

As people are absorbing this, one of the men challenges a patron about a Web site he is visiting and asks the man to step outside. At this point, a librarian intervenes and calls the uniformed men aside. A police officer is summoned. The men leave. It turns out they are employees of the county's Department of Homeland Security and were operating way outside their authority.

We are indebted to reporter Cameron W. Barr of The Washington Post for the account of this incident, which, I feel constrained to repeat, did not happen in China, Cuba or North Korea. Rather, it happened a few days ago in this country. Right here in freedom's land.

There are those of us who'd say the country has become less deserving of that sobriquet in recent years. They would point as evidence to the detention of U.S. citizens without charges, counsel or recourse, to laws empowering the government to check up on what you've been reading, to revelations of illegal eavesdropping.

And there are others who'd say, "So what?" They're in the 51 percent, according to a recent Los Angles Times/Bloomberg poll, who say we should be ready to give up our freedoms in exchange for security.

Apparently, they are ignorant of what Benjamin Franklin said: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Apparently, they're also unversed in something Mr. Bush said as a candidate in 1999: "There ought to be limits to freedom." Mind you, this nugget of wisdom wasn't dropped in a discussion of national security. Rather, it was the future president's reaction to a Web site that made fun of him.

Seven years later, he's clearly getting his wish. It chills me to know that doesn't chill more of us. Indeed, of all the many things I cannot fathom about certain of my countrymen and women, their ability to be sanguine at the threatened abrogation of their rights is very near the top.

The only way I can explain it is that freedom - the right to do, say, think, go, "live" as you please - is so ingrained in our psyche, has been such a part of us for so long, that some are literally unable to imagine life without it. They seem fundamentally unable to visualize how drastically things would change without these freedoms they treat so cavalierly, what it would be like to need government approval to use the Internet, buy a firearm, take a trip, watch a movie or read these very words.

If that sounds alarmist, consider again the experience at Little Falls, where an agent of the government literally read over a man's shoulder, Big Brother-like, and tried to prevent him from seeing what he had chosen to see.

The fact that we are at war doesn't make that OK. The fact that we are panicked doesn't make it OK. The allegation that the material is unsavory doesn't make it OK.

Look, freedom is a messy business. It is also a risky business. But it means nothing if we surrender it at every hint of messiness and risk. That's cowardly, and it's un-American.

You'd think we'd have learned that lesson after the Sedition Act of 1918, the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the surveillance of the Rev. Martin Luther King. But apparently the lesson requires constant relearning. And vigilance.

So thank you to the Little Falls library for having the guts to say: Hell no. Some things should never happen in freedom's land.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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