26th U.S. President
“The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price, peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first and love of soft living and the get-rich-quick theory of life.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
The 26th President of the United States may have said it best, and perhaps predicted what could become one of the major downfalls of the United States: “peace at any price” and “safety first”. Of course, we all would say we want peace and safety as permanent staples of this world. It’s completely natural as humans to desire this ideal concept which is so noble and moral. The question that should be asked, though, is at what cost do we want to achieve this peace and safety? Anywhere one looks, it is impossible to escape this safety-minded society. Government Ad-Counsel commercials ranging from telling us to exercise an hour every day to dealing with bullies saturates the television, compelling us to take a look at how we can protect ourselves and those around us. So, let’s look at how our recent strive for safety and peace has, in many ways, eroded our basic rights as individuals and as a society.
It is logical to start with the 1st Amendment, which primarily guarantees the Right to Free Speech, as it is perhaps one of the most crucial rights we have under our Bill of Rights. Going back to Sedition Act of 1918, the desire for peace and safety was explicitly mandated by making illegal any language that was “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive” towards the U.S. Government, the Flag, or military. Not to be outdone, in 1940, the Smith Act was passed, which anyone promoting “the propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force and violence…” faced being prosecuted. Both of these laws have effectively been overturned by the Supreme Court, giving strong credence in our system of checks-and-balances. Yet, let’s look at the rationale that leads to anti-speech legislation of this magnitude. In both instances the U.S. was in conflict with Germany both in WWI and WWII, bringing out both paranoia and strong patriotism. At this time, with the idea of a declared national enemy and sense of defense of country, it made rational sense to outlaw any negative comments against the United States. In those times of turmoil, the human desire for safety and unity justified severely altering the Right to Free Speech, resulting in a standing law that would not effectively be ended by the Supreme Court until 1957.
Fast forward to this decade, and the ideas of safety and peace have become even more controlling and invasive. In Dariano V. Morgan Hill Unified School Dist., a student was told he could not wear an American flag on his shirt because it posed a risk to his safety from Hispanic students during Cinco De Mayo celebrations. The ruling was federally upheld on the basis that the shirt would cause disruptions and that the student’s well-being was in risk. So much as the risk may have been to student, what is significantly trampled is the student’s right to wear the U.S. flag and his freedom of speech. Although using a similar “safety-first” rationale, this is directly in the opposite spirit of the Sedition and Smith Act half a century before.
Perhaps the most emotionally charged argument in today’s society around society and peace is around the 2nd Amendment: “The right to bear arms…” Pro- and Anti-Gun groups are found throughout society and today’s political system, but both will agree one basic fact: guns can be dangerous. While multiple factors propel anti-gun lobbyists to pursue legislation and laws, the one central argument they use is that the removal or control of firearms will bring safety to families, communities, and society. It drives deep into many people’s deepest fear and leads them to imagine a world without firearms. The picture that the mind wants to paint is that of a perfectly safe world, where no one is ever harmed and crime ceases to exist. Yet, this is where it quickly implodes. The idea that crime ceases with the removal from guns is not only incorrect; it’s actually counter-productive, with it assuming that criminal’s would obey established laws or not be able to find another weapon of choice. Sadly, it doesn’t matter to many individuals, as the ideal of a safe world is overpowering compared to the logical portions of our mind. It is not uncommon to mention firearms as a hobby or the carrying of a concealed handgun and receive emotions ranging from confusion to perpetual fear. Most of the time, if prodded, a confession will ensue revealing that they have never held or even been introduced to a firearm in their life. This lack of knowledge and consequential fear continues to aid in the quest to make our society void of firearms and (theoretically) violence. The fear of violence and of what we don’t understand becomes the tool that is used to control us.
The root of our overwhelming desire for “peace” and “safety” is self-preservation. Self-preservation is part of our human nature; and in many times, becomes the overwhelming driving force in our actions. For example, in the recent Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster off the coast of Italy, reports of the scramble for lifeboats revealed men shoving women aside and other disgraceful actions, including the ship’s captain abandoning ship leaving his passengers to struggle on their own. This self-preservation fear makes for a strong set of reigns if it can be harnessed by those with the power to do so. If the previous examples of rights being degraded in the name of safety and peace do not invoke any surprise, then consider these more subtle invasions of personal liberties for the same reasons.
n what has brought outrage from some but also strong support from others, full-body scanners have virtually become the status-quo at any U.S. airport today. As they virtually strip-search millions of Americans every day, many in the public justify this evasion of privacy as necessary to remain safe and protected, willing giving up their 4th Amendment rights for the luxury of feeling safe. A relatively vocal few have spoken out on the excessive and purely evasive nature of these searches; realizing that while safety is important, it cannot be allowed to take precedent over their individual rights. Gradually the perceived safety and desire to feel safe in the air is leading to the willful conditioning of a society to accept government to act on their behalf and in their best interest. If this seems like a stretch, the following two examples just occurred over the last few months.
According to multiple news sources, the NYPD is beginning to develop and deploy body scanners out on the streets of the city in hopes of detecting whether or not pedestrians are concealing a handgun. Without discerning any probable cause or reasonable suspicion, the body scanners will virtually strip-search anyone who walks by. Once again, the initial reaction of some will be to picture a perfect world; but, in reality, individual rights are being scraped away little by little. As another example of this erosion, Fort Lauderdale PD has deployed two armored surveillance vehicles to the city’s streets. The sole purpose of these armored surveillance trucks is to conspicuously park them in areas with high crime or in front of residences where illegal activity is suspected. Once again, the initial thoughts are to justify this through the prism of safety and peace, but a deeper search should reveal concerns of blatant threats of police intimidation of “suspected” citizens of this nation.
Not all is lost in this battle against the manipulation of our inner fears. Fortunately, this year in United States V. Jones, the Supreme Court once again stepped in to prevent overreaches of government, ruling that GPS tracking of a citizen by any governmental agency without a warrant to be unconstitutional. The idea that any part of government would need a court battle to determine if this is legal should only confirm that our fears and desire for safety is being exploited before our own eyes.
As these grabs for more power continue, and if they are not challenged, an entire nation once founded on individual liberty and privacy could suddenly find itself under the strict control of laws that it once supported, all in the name of safety and peace. Without a doubt, this is part of the warning given by President Roosevelt almost one hundred years ago.