While probably more often remembered for his prescient warning that America must beware the too-powerful "military-industrial complex," former five-star general and president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, also possessed a deep understanding of the folly of over-reliance on government power to deliver security to a populace.
In 1949, three years before his election to the presidency and while serving as president of Columbia University, Eisenhower dryly remarked that if security were the ultimate goal of Americans, then "prison ... [where] they'll have enough to eat, a bed and a roof over their heads," should be their abode of choice. While not as memorable as Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death" speech in 1775 that helped spark a revolution in freedom that echoed through the ages, Eisenhower, too, clearly understood that complete security -- if it ever might be secured -- could only be attained at the cost of freedom itself.
America, for its first two and a quarter centuries, inherently understood that a measure of the price paid for freedom is a certain lack of security -- a degree of risk, as it were. While in prior times of peril our nation back slid in its understanding of this principle of liberty, and allowed government to seize power to the extent fundamental freedom was threatened -- the Alien and Sedition Acts early in the 19th century, the suspension of habeas corpus in the Civil War era, the "Red Scare" and the "Palmer Raids" in the time of World War I, the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II -- in each instance, corrective action was taken.
The terrorist attacks of 2001 and the resulting and unprecedented power grab by the federal government in its drive to bring "security" to an America frozen with fear over another such attack, for the first time in our nation's history threatens to permanently enshrine the notion that security trumps freedom.
In no sense is the big hand of government power more apparent than in the incessant drive by Washington to abolish any vestige of privacy enjoyed by our citizens. The mantra is a familiar one: "you must be prepared to give up a little privacy in order to have security." The question is often posed, "if you have nothing to hide, why should you be concerned if the government listens in to your phone calls or reads your e-mails?" Ultimately, the administration falls back on the refrain that "we are fighting a new and dangerous enemy, of the sort never contemplated by those who drafted the Fourth Amendment many decades ago, and we need new powers to do meet these grave threats."
The fact is, of course, our Founding Fathers, those geniuses in gray wigs, knew exactly what they were doing. They knew that power corrupts and that the power of the government to invade a person's property, belongings and beliefs constitutes the power to control. They understood that if government enjoyed absolute power to invade or take away a person's privacy, then the government enjoyed absolute control over that person, who therefore had no liberty or freedom. It's that simple.
At the time the Bill of Rights was being debated and adopted, and in the first few years thereafter, the United States faced a threat far greater than that posed by potential terrorist cells today. We faced invasion and conquest by the most powerful nation on the face of the Earth: Great Britain.
Yet, in the face of such a threat, our framers deliberately and knowingly limited the ability of the government to invade people's privacy and gather evidence against them. The Fourth Amendment allows government to do so only in those instances in which it has good reason to suspect the person of criminal acts (yes, that includes suspected "terrorist" conduct). To claim that the limitations in the Fourth Amendment do not apply in the year 2007 because the threat we face is somehow different from or worse than the threat we faced two and a quarter centuries ago is at odds with historical reality; it is mere sophistry.
Why is this so important? Is it simply because we don't want the government to learn our bank account balance ... or our medical history ... or our travel patterns ...or whatever? Yes, but not really. It is vitally important that we rectify this frightening erosion of our constitutional underpinning because, as philosopher Ayn Rand correctly concluded in her 1943 novel, "The Fountainhead," privacy is the very foundation of freedom. "Civilization," she said, is the "progress toward a society of privacy." It is after all, "the process of setting man free from men."
Our Founding Fathers understood that. The Bill of Rights and the Fourth Amendment protects it. This administration disdains it. And the American people truly must re-establish it, if our very notion of a society based on freedom is to survive.
Bob Barr formerly represented the Seventh Congressional District of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle