The Justice Department has won a few court cases lately, and the media are reacting as if the American people have lost. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post are once again invoking Orwell's "1984" to describe John Ashcroft's assault on our liberties.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should reveal for the umpteenth time that my dear wife works for the attorney general as his chief speechwriter. Many times she's had me rolling on the floor with laughter as we've combed through the medical files and secret dossiers of average citizens. "Did you see this one!" she's shrieked with laughter. "You'd think Alec Baldwin would get an ointment for that!"
Actually, I'm kidding. It drives me nuts, but the missus doesn't share anything cool with me because, believe it or not, they take civil liberties and security very seriously over in the Justice Department.
Every society, it's been said, tends to worry about those things it has least cause to worry about. Queen Victoria probably worried about lax sexual attitudes, even though Victorian England was bound tighter than a corset. Today, we worry desperately about our personal and political freedom even though we are more free today than at any time in our history.
When I say this to conservatives and liberals alike, they tend to roll their eyes or pound the table, but it's true. First, there's the obvious stuff. Women and blacks, to name two obvious examples, are no longer the subject of legal discrimination in any meaningful sense. And speech is less restricted today than at any other time in American history. Just look at the arguments we have about free speech today - banning child porn on the Web is controversial!
But it's not just our political or legal freedoms that are more secure. There's material freedom. Technology makes it possible for Americans to do what they please, when they please, and how they please to an extent never before seen. The birth control pill alone - for good and for ill - did more to liberate women than all bra-burning protestors of the 1960s combined. The Internet affords more opportunities for free speech and inquiry than was available to all but the wealthiest Americans half a century ago. And cell phones and laptops, never mind cars, make us less bound to our homes or offices.
I bring this all up because civil libertarians on the right and left talk as if the federal government is closing in on them, like guys in ill-fitting black suits are parked in their driveways listening to their phone calls. They talk about the measures taken in the war on terrorism as if these policies have a direct and tangible impact on their lives. Though they do have an impact, it's just not the ominous and Orwellian one the ACLU conjures: These policies help keep you safe and free.
I'm not saying the government has done - or will do - everything perfectly when it comes to balancing freedom and security. But Americans have an extremely sensitive early warning system when it comes to lost liberties, real and imagined, which is why the U.S. government has been remarkably careful about infringing on civil rights.
Consider the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This is constantly cited - and rightly so - as an injustice that must never be repeated. But what worrywarts don't seem to get is the fact that it's (BEGIN ITAL) not being repeated. The United States hasn't rounded up whole communities of American citizens and put them in military camps. In fact, the number of American citizens held in military custody is a whopping two. All of the other few hundred citizens detained for terrorism-related reasons in the United States have access to lawyers. And as for the fellas at Guantanamo, well, they were captured fighting for the enemy during a war. And, well, this is a war, you know?
Now, one could certainly argue that the internment of large numbers of Muslims makes more sense than the internment of Japanese during World War II. We know al-Qaida has sleeper cells here and that the battlefield is on our own soil. But we're not doing it for two simple reasons. First, it's not necessary. Thanks to better technologies, we can use a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer to defend our liberties here at home. And, second, it would be wrong. We simply don't want to live in a country that would do such a thing.
If the slippery slope to tyranny were real, we wouldn't see the internment of the Japanese as a cautionary tale - we'd see it as a precedent for similar action today. Instead we've been sliding toward ever-greater freedom for the last century - and even our government's actions reflect that.