Freedom and Terrorism

December 24, 2020


The sudden violence of terrorism shattering the peacefulness of an ordinary day or a joyous occasion compels our attention.  We are riveted by the devastation, uplifted by the courage shown in response, amazed by the play of inexplicable chance that takes this life but leaves another unscathed.  But as these emotions fade and ordinary life takes hold again, as it always does, we should reflect on the consequences of the sudden violence.  As compelling as the immediate response is, in the time of terrorism in which we live, our long-term response to an attack is more important.  In that spirit, here are some things we fellow citizens might consider.

Living in freedom means living with risk.  It means accepting danger.  The only way to do away with risk, is to do away with freedom.  There is no terrorism in North Korea, as there was none in the Soviet Union.  The more risk we are willing to live with, the freer we can be.  This is true whether we are talking about economics or domestic security.  That this truth applies to both these very different arenas of our national life shows how fundamental it is to the freedom we cherish.

Officials will always tell us they act as they do because they have our safety in mind.  We should, of course, be reassured that they do and grateful for their dedication and competence.  But we should also remind them that they should act with our freedom in mind.  Two senators have reportedly urged that the surviving suspected terrorist responsible for the attack in Boston be held as an enemy combatant and denied the full protection the Constitution affords those accused of crimes, even though he is an American citizen.  Denying a terrorist constitutional protection may be done legally and briefly in an effort to get information on an imminent attack.  But the senators advocated indefinite denial of those protections.  We now routinely kill Americans overseas solely on the judgment of the executive branch.  The urging of the senators to ignore established constitutional protections for an American citizen at home shows how principles applied overseas may lead to the slow erosion of our freedom at home.

How much freedom will we give up in the effort to be safe from terrorism?  How much risk are we willing to live with?   Should we accept the idea of locking down a city to find a terrorist, for example?  The week’s events suggest another approach.  At critical points, it was citizens who provided the key information that led police to the terrorists.  For example, when the lockdown was lifted, a citizen found the surviving suspect in his backyard.  Instead of restricting our freedom to keep us safe, could the authorities work with citizens in the fight against terrorism?  True, as much as concerned citizens helped, they also identified innocent people as suspects.  Vigilantism is as dangerous to our freedom as overly protective authorities.  But the fact is, in the time of terrorism, all of us are in the fight.  The terrorists have returned to all of us the privilege of dying for our freedom.   Can we accept that risk—and by accepting it both overcome terrorism and preserve our freedom?

David Tucker is an Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.  The views expressed here are his own.