Tread on Me: The Case for Freedom From Terrorist Bombings, School Shootings and Exploding Factories

The past few months show that the government must protect the public even if it has to limit individual rights

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Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Mike Murphy of the Newton, Mass., fire department carries an American flag after a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the bombing at the Boston Marathon in Boston on April 22, 2013

We’re often told that our liberties are under assault. The right warns that our Big Government nanny state is plotting to seize our guns and our Big Gulps, while strangling our economic freedom with taxes and regulations. The left rails against our Big Government security state — the drone warfare, indefinite detention and electronic surveillance that make the war on terrorism sound like an Orwellian nightmare. The National Rifle Association had just finished bellowing about background checks violating our Second Amendment rights when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) started shrieking about the FBI violating the Boston bombing suspect’s Miranda rights.

America was born from resistance to tyranny, and our skepticism of authority is a healthy tradition. But we’re pretty free. And the “don’t tread on me” slippery-slopers on both ends of the political spectrum tend to forget that Big Government helps protect other important rights. Like the right of a child to watch a marathon or attend first grade without getting killed — or, for that matter, the right to live near a fertilizer factory without it blowing up your house.

Our government needs to balance these rights, which is tough sometimes. But not always. Requiring gun owners to pass background checks and restricting access to high-capacity magazines would be a minuscule price to pay to help avoid future Newtowns and Auroras. If the FBI waits a few days to read Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the Miranda boilerplate he’s already heard a million times on Law and Order, the Republic will survive, and the authorities might learn something that will help prevent another tragedy. (In fact, if America’s ubiquitous surveillance network hadn’t captured Tsarnaev on video, he might still be at large.) Even in a free-enterprise system — especially in a free-enterprise system — a factory owner’s right to run his business without government interference is trumped by the public-safety rights of the local community.

In the Obama era, Tea Party Republicans like Senator Rand Paul have portrayed the U.S. government as a threat to individual liberty, an oppressive force in American life. They just want government to leave us alone. But while the “stand with Rand” worldview is quite consistent — against gun restrictions, traffic-light cameras, drone strikes, antidiscrimination laws, antipollution laws and other Big Brother intrusions into our private lives — it’s wrong. And most of us know it’s wrong, which is why we celebrate our first responders, our soldiers, our law enforcers. They’re from the government, and they’re here to help. We know our government is fallible, because it’s made up of people, but we still count on it to protect us from terrorists, from psychos with guns, from exploding factories. We also need it to protect us from floods and wildfires, from financial meltdowns and climate change. We can’t do that kind of thing ourselves.

I don’t want to imply that we live in a Game of Thrones episode — our nights are dark but only occasionally full of terrors — but last week, an Elvis impersonator trying to poison the President didn’t even make the front page. There’s dangerous stuff out there, and while it’s probably fun to stand with Rand, I’m more inclined to stand with the public servants keeping us safe, even when the al-Qaeda operative they ice in Yemen is an American citizen, even when they shut down an entire city to hunt for a single teenager, and yes, even when they try to regulate coal plants and oil rigs and Wall Street casinos that would greatly prefer to be left alone. That’s why I pay my taxes, and that’s why I don’t feel like I’m being tyrannized when I pay them.

I guess you could call me a statist. I’m not sure we need public financing for our symphonies or our farmers or our mortgages — history will also recall my stand with Rand on the great laser-pointing controversy of 2011 — but we do need Big Government to attack the big collective-action problems of the modern world. Our rights are not inviolate. Just as the First Amendment doesn’t let us shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, the Second Amendment shouldn’t let us have assault weapons designed for mass slaughter. And if the authorities decided it was vital to ask Tsarnaev about his alleged murder of innocents before reminding him of his Fifth Amendment rights to lawyer up, I won’t second-guess their call. The civil-liberties purists of the ACLU are just as extreme as the gun purists of the NRA, or the antiregulatory purists in business groups like the Club for Growth.

Those of us who support aggressive government action to protect the public ought to acknowledge that it does, at the margins, limit individual rights — the rights of gun owners, the rights of business owners, the rights of the accused. Go ahead, quote the Ben Franklin line about those who would sacrifice some liberty for security deserving neither. But what about the rights of 8-year-old Martin Richard, blown away after watching his dad finish the marathon? Who safeguarded the liberty of 6-year-old Charlotte Bacon, gunned down in her classroom in her new pink dress? What about Perry Calvin and Morris Bridges and the other victims of the West Texas explosion? Nobody read them their rights.

I’ve been told that invoking the death of innocents is an emotional appeal rather than a logical argument. And I do admit these tragedies make me angry. But I think it would be logical for our government to try to limit these tragedies in the future. We already sacrifice liberty all the time — our right to automatic weapons, our right to walk through airport security with our shoes on, our right to run our businesses however we please. The rights of the next Martin Richard and the next Charlotte Bacon matter too.

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