On Terrorism and Civil Liberties

A runner and race officials react to an explosion during the Boston MarathonBombs Exploding at Boston Marathon

 Is Freedom and Domestic Tranquility Incompatible?

As we witnessed the carnage from the Boston Marathon in living color on CNN – a sporting event which has been held without incident, except for an unruly drunk here and there, for 117 years – an old friend of mine who has lived in New York City for over 70 years turned to me and asked: “Is this what the future of American society looks like?  Will we ever return to the feelings of peace and security that I have known most of my life?”

I was tempted to say that his was the view of a black man that has always lived in the North, because Afro-Americans of his generation who grew up in the South lived under the constant threat of terrorism from our white neighbors, a fact I can personally attest to, but I understood what he meant.

What he was really asking is whether incidents of random carnage wrought by bombs or mass shootings, whether from foreign or domestic sources, is the “new normal” in America?  In view of the frequency of these events it is a reasonable question.  The massacre of innocents are now occurring so often that the public is becoming emotionally detached, desensitized.   It is a means of retaining one’s sanity and maintaining one’s cool, because the alternative is to become paranoid and paralyzed with fear.  Some people are becoming afraid to go out of the house.

A Massive Intelligence Failure


Reaping What We Sowed

It is easy for anyone with an active imagination to conjure up terrorist attacks that have not happened yet, but would be so easy to pull off you wonder whi it hasn’t happened.  What is most frightening about this fact is that if it is possible for ordinary citizens to imagine these catastrophic scenarios…it is certain that the pros have thought of it.  The only mystery is why they have not done it.  When we think of such horrors as derailing high speed passenger trains, placing bombs in the New York subway system at rush hour, igniting a tanker truck filled with highly flammable gas in a tunnel at drive time, or downing passenger jets with shoulder held surface to air missiles – which were given to the Jihadists by the US Reagan Administration and trained in their use by the CIA, when they were the “heoric” Mujahidin fighting the Russians in Afghanistan – it is enough to make one paranoid and scared to go anywhere.

An Afghan/Arab Mujahidin firing a Stinger Missile


They can take down a plane and Reagan considered them Heroes!

The alternative to this is to go about your business with an optimism that is based more on faith that everything will be alright than a sober assessment of contemporary American realities.  Of course statisticians  will pull out their calculators and insure us that there is a small probability that any one of us will become a victim of terrorist attacks – but it is unconvincing to the people from the sleepy bedroom community of New Town Connecticut, who just months ago witnessed the mass slaughter of their children in their school, and then barley missed being blown to bits as the ran in the Boston marathon in remembrance of their slain children.

It is also unconvincing to the lady who survived a mass shooting only to end up in another mass slaughter by a mad gunman in a dark movie theater in Aurora Illinois.  And the staticians are also unconvinving to those of us witnessing these tragedies on television.  The frequency of mass murderers and the diversity of their targets – whether by home grown or foreign terrorist, and assorted mad men with military assault weapons looking for an easy path to newspaper headlines and the history books – is creating an increasing sense of insecurity and borderline panic in the American people.  What Dr. DuBois said about the murderous violence directed against black Americans by whites in the early 20th century, has become true for random violence directed against all Americans: “Not all the time but anytime…not everywhere but anywhere.”

As Congressman Bennie Thompson, of the Homeland Security Committee is pointing out on MSNBC as I write, there are a 1000 organizations in the US identified in Homeland Security reports as having terrorist affiliations or objectives.  This is a sobering fact that right-wing Republicans were quick to deny as a liberal attack against “conservatives.”  It gives us some idea of the complexity of the job that those tasked with maintaining “domestic tranquility,” a fundamental role of government as defined in the US Constitution, are faced with.

With the recent assassinations of law enforcement officials – prosecutors in Texas and a Commissioner of prisons in Colorado – police agencies are confronted with an unprecedented threat to maintaining law and order.  There can be no greater evidence of this than the fact that a federal prosecuter quit the investigation of the Aryan brotherhoodin Texas for reasons of “personal security.”  The emergence of foreign and domestic terrorists willing to commit mass murder and assassinations of those whom we have elected to maintain the peace, requires the American government to adopt unprecedented measures to arrest their efforts at creating chaos in America.

This requires us to think the previously unthinkable, to ask questions that would have made one a Pariah in polite company not so long ago. Yet despite its odiousness to virtually every American, the question must be asked: In order to insure domestic tranquility must Americans be willing to abridge or even surrender some of our constitutional rights?

For instance, I believe that the only way to solve the growing carnage from gun violence is to repeal the Second Amendment, and make the penalty for illegal possession of a gun so Draconian that most people won’t even fantasize  about it.  And we would rely on the police for protection from criminals the way other advanced civilized nations do.

And should we become convinced that the American proclivity for slaughtering each other with guns – routinely producing far more casualties on the “peaceful” home front than on foreign battle fields – is a cultural problem, then we must not hesitate to ban certain kinds of violence in television, movies, and print media.  We must do this even if it means abridging the First Amendment.

I say this as a left-wing libertarian, one who believes the role of government should be to  maintain domestic tranquility, defend the nation against foreign enemies, and “give people stuff,” as Mitt Romney inelegantly put it – taxing the rich at whatever rate necissary to pay for it.  I have long been suspect of the government having the power to control free expression whether in politics, entertainment or serious literature.  And of course I consider academic discourse sacrosanct; yet in the absence of domestic tranquility the quality of life, such as it is, will be greatly degraded.

Thus the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness – which the Founders thought was divinely ordained – will surely slip our grasp.  Hence the fundamental question that confronts American civilization at this juncture in our history is: Can American society successfully fight the forces of terrorism – which  will eventually destroy our peace of mind, imperil our personal security and diminish  the quality of our lives – while simultaneously preserving our civil liberties as we have previously enjoyed them.

To be, or not to be, totally free: that is the question.  In seeking an answer to this troublesome riddle, considering the fact that their are home grown lunatics running around with assault rifiles wreaking havoc everywhere, and legions of fanatical Islamic Jihadists who have dedicated their lives to killing as many Americans as possible by whatever means they can,  inshallah, I would remind the reader to consider Abraham Lincoln’s response when he was called a tyrant for suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War: “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”

A Day at the Races….

…..ain’t what it used to be!


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New york


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