The Price of Freedom

Posted: Apr 20, 2007 12:01 AM

The phrase “the price of freedom” is often used when referring to the sacrifices of soldiers in battle to defend America’s freedoms. There is another price of freedom though. We paid it most recently in a very big way in Blacksburg, Virginia, but we have paid it many times previously, as well.

Some news outlets reported the Virgnia Tech shooting as the “worst mass murder in U.S. history." It was the most deadly school shooting in U.S. history, but certainly not the most deadly mass murder, and the distinction does matter in the context I am raising it.

The Jawa Report notes the Virginia Tech rampage was not only not the worst mass murder, it was not even the second, or third or fourth worst, but followed the 9/11 attacks (2,998 deaths), the Oklahoma City bombing (168 deaths), the HappyLand arson of 1990 (87 deaths) and the Bath, Michigan school bombing of 1927 (45 deaths), all claiming more lives than the Virginia Tech shootings (32 deaths).

One thing all these horrible murders have in common is that they were possible, at least in part, due to the fact that we have an open and free society. After the shooting at the Virginia Tech campus, and after any such horrific crime, one instinctive reaction is to want to do something in response to prevent it from ever happening again. In all the cases listed above, because the sites of the crimes were public places such as schools, office buildings, and night clubs, any such measure would include some sacrifice of our freedom. That sacrifice could be relatively unnoticeable, like installing more security cameras and instituting new security response procedures, or it could be more obvious and intrusive such as installing metal detectors and changing gun laws. Some changes might actually make us safer, while others could only provide the illusion of safety and, in fact, make us less safe.

This is the balancing act that goes on in a free democracy between the want and need to be secure and the desire to live in a free and open society.

My reminder above that this most recent shooting was not the most deadly mass murder in U.S. history was provided because I wanted to make the point that even all the lessons we have learned from previous, even more deadly incidents have not been able to prevent all such future attacks. Hopefully some of the measures taken following them have done some good, but as long as we live in freedom, we will be open to the threat of violence.

As more becomes known about the Virginia Tech shooter, there will be more arguments made that if only a specific gun law had been different or if only a medical privacy law that might have kept the information of the shooter’s mental history concealed were not in place, or any number of other things had been different, this horrible event might have been prevented.

Certainly we should examine the specifics of the recent rampage at Virginia Tech and seek to learn any lessons from it that might prevent future school shootings. In the short term, a likely reaction will be to strengthen security measures in our schools and public places, and to attempt to understand and treat the underlying reasons a person might commit such an insane act.

But, unfortunately, without being able to read the murderer's mind, there is often not much that can be done. Short of erecting maximum security schools, it is difficult to stop a madman determined to kill. That is a horrifying thought, but sadly it is true. These are senseless acts of cruelty that are difficult to prevent.

I am often amazed that there are not more frequent terrorist attacks in the United States considering the great freedom we enjoy. There is little that could stop a madman with a weapon (gun, bomb, or whatever it may be) intent upon mass murder. We enjoy being able to go shopping and to the movies and to eat in restaurants without being stopped and searched by security. Most Americans don’t want metal detectors in every school and church and other public gathering place -- we already have to deal with them at all the airports and court buildings. But we do want to feel safe.

In an episode of the television drama “Crossing Jordan” this week, one of the main characters was detained by the Homeland Security Agency for being a suspected terrorist. The HSA was portrayed as scary and ruthless, threatening the character with Abu Ghraib style treatment. It was an over-the-top, ham-handed portrayal, but no doubt captured the concerns of some. Even the loss of some rights and civil liberties extended to suspected terrorists is seen as a frightening and dangerous thing by many – even to some of those who see that loss as necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks.

The balance between freedom and security is often a difficult one to make and at times our desire to live in a free society comes with a high price. One of the things that makes our way of life so desirable, is also what makes us, at times, very vulnerable. Such is the case with anything worthwhile in life though.