Afloat in paradoxes

Posted: Nov 25, 2002 12:00 AM
Two days at sea, with only CNN and the ship's company to keep us abreast of the news. But the company is lively, and paradoxes are always with us.

On Monday two airline events were highlighted. One of them told of the Arab Israeli hijacker who attempted to take on an Al El flight. That brought instant commentary. Officials wondered at the spectacular audacity of the enterprise. Never mind that, confronted by alert air marshals, the hijacker was quickly relieved of his knife and immobilized, allowing the airship to land safely in Istanbul.

What left the commentators agog was the near-unique presumption of it all. We were quickly reminded that El Al has the most thorough security apparatus in the airline world, that as many as two and even three hours are spent with individual passengers exploring any possibility that their intentions are malign. I was once some years ago at the Tel Aviv airport and asked by the tight-lipped security lady, what had been the purpose of my visit in Israel? I confess to have been pleased that the question was asked because it permitted me to engage in arrant name-dropping. Well, I said, I was here to interview Mrs. Golda Meir.

That was on the order of replying to the question, "Who are you?" with the word, "Napoleon." It was a long hour before the lady established that indeed I had been at the office of the prime minister (a propos a "Firing Line" program). Why anyone bent on terrorism would add to the risk of such an enterprise the supplementary burden of defying El Al security dumbfounded the TV reporters, who even tracked down the specialist who had designed El Al security. How could this happen? His answer was that it should not have happened.

The paradox was that minutes later, the cameras turned to Hans Blix, the U.N. specialist finally returning to Iraq, after four years, to resume the search for hidden weapons of mass destruction. His bags were being searched at the airport. Only the Latin adage provides relief: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who is supposed to look after the people who are looking after us? We are engaged in sending to the Middle East the one man whose researches there are supposed to decide whether the United States will go on to war. But before allowing him to poke around Iraq looking for nuclear materials, we need to poke about in his bags, to make sure he is not taking some nuclear materials with him.

That was the little paradoxical breather of the day. A weightier one was expressed by Professor Milton Friedman, who gave a public talk in which the question was explored: Are freedoms indivisible? We like to think that this is so, which is why we have been hanging on, breathless, looking at China, which grants economic freedoms on larger and larger scales, but has just brought to power, to succeed longstanding traditional Communist tyrants, a fresh face: the man who, in 1989, imposed martial law on Tibet and who was the first Chinese regional party secretary to send a congratulatory telegram to the central government after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Mr. Friedman made the sobering point that far from assuming that economic freedoms will automatically bring civil freedoms, we need to remind ourselves that civil freedoms are sometimes exercised to deny economic freedoms. This is what happened in Great Britain after the war. Where there is progressive taxation, let alone predatory taxes, however authorized by due democratic process, economic freedom diminishes. That being the basic freedom (people decide how to spend their money more often than when to write their congressman), it is often menaced by the exercise of civil freedoms.

We Americans, and a few others, are blessed with both freedoms, but have to live with the paradox, that the exercise of one freedom is sometimes done at the expense of the other.