Safety First: A New Mantra for America

I don’t ever watch the news on TV.  Maybe once a month, generally while sitting in a waiting room of some sort where you can’t help but listen to the TV blaring away in the corner.

A few months ago I was in that situation, and listened to Mayor Bloomberg utter the now all too common refrain that “safety of residents was his top priority.”  I don’t want to focus in on the specific situation he was referring to or anything along those lines, I just want to comment briefly on a once-bedrock notion that seems to have been lost permanently from the American Psyche: safety or security is not an ideal in and of itself.

Let me explain.

If you hang around geeks long enough, you’ll hear them discuss the security and safety of their computers.  There’s lot of things to secure (and thus talk about) too: their code, their servers, even security of non-computery things and other physical devices.  At some point, you’ll hear a version of this statement: “The only secure computer is one that’s turned off, unconnected to anything, encased in a block of concrete, sitting in the bottom of the ocean…and even that’s not going to be completely secure!”

What’s really being said here is that security is not a binary function of yes/no but a continuum between two mutually exclusive goals: utility and security.  In other words, security is a process during which intelligent and thoughtful trade-offs have to be made just to get stuff done.  This is why you will find nerds, geeks, and other computer professionals disproportionately critical of many modern security measures, processes, and other “security theater” institutions like the TSA.  Computer people already have a wealth of experience trading perfect security for reasonable security in order to achieve things, and we’ve done so without coercion or legislation or massive cost to the user.  The technology security analyst’s job is literally right on the pain point between these two opposing priorities and it’s often not pleasant, but that’s their job.

Back to America and our newfound obsession with safety and security.  Ben Franklin has an iconic quote (often paraphrased) which we seem to have lost sight of:

Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.”  

It’s as clear a signal from the framers of the United States as to what kind of country we were to be.   There’s an even more powerful quote which I’ll discuss in just a moment.

I’m not a George W. Bush fan, but I eagerly bought his book “Decision Points” when it came out and very much enjoyed reading it.  It clearly wasn’t ghost written, which was refreshing.  He plays fast and loose with the facts in a few places, and revises history in others, but the first chapter is genuinely inspiring as he documents his battle with alcoholism.

I found myself respecting him more after reading the book and I also gained a lot of insight into his thought processes.  Over and over again he justifies his, uhh, decision points by claiming that his primary duty was to keep Americans safe.  If you listen to talk radio even just a little this is a refrain you’ll hear over and over again.  We have to keep Americans and America safe.  We have to keep our allies safe.  It’s mentioned by commentators, newscasters, senators, congressmen, presidents, and people. Safe. Safe. Safe.

Except Bush, talk radio personalities, and anyone else who believes that safety is our ultimate priority are all wrong.  The founding fathers knew what they were doing when they designed the oath of the office of the President of the United States:

I, <name>, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Presidents and Congress are to protect our Constitution, not Americans, and in doing so they protect America.  Pure safety is unatainable, and to get as close as we can to pure security means totalitarianism, and no happiness, life or liberty.  Just like with the almost-safe computer sitting in the bottom of the ocean, a purely safe life means being locked in a room in the bottom of the ocean where nobody can harm you.

We need to stop pursuing this idea that the end goal of America and Americans is safety.  I don’t want to live a safe life.  I want to live a fulfilling life, one that’s full of adventure and creation and freedom.  

We need do a better job at educating ourselves about the true risks in life.  The reality is that it’s much more dangerous to drive and pickup a pizza than to fly.  I’m more likely to get hit by lightning than be a victim of terrorism.  

There are dozens and dozens of examples that document how we’re living in an age of extreme safety and relative security, and none of this is due to security checks or military spending or increased wiretapping.  I’d encourage you to do the research and see if you come to the same conclusion.  

Back to the American oath of office.  Think of how natural it would have been to make the chief goal of our President be the security of his people.  Swearing an oath to the constitution was no accident.  Think of how easy it is to make bad decisions if all you care about is safety.

We have a higher calling in life than to be safe.  Most of history’s meaningful changes have been very unsafe affairs.  We should expect our leaders to understand this and we shouldn’t accept safety as our prime directive or even as a goal in and of itself.

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One thought on “Safety First: A New Mantra for America

  1. Great points. I’ve heard that this obsession with safety is why we haven’t been back to the Moon. We could do it in the 60’s and 70’s with processors that even modern graphing calculators vastly outperform, but with all the technology we have today, it is prohibitively expensive. The NASA of yesterday was willing to go with safe enough, but after Challenger and Columbia, NASA won’t do anything unless safety is essentially guaranteed. Where yesterday they would’ve been satisfied with 99.9% safe, today they won’t proceed with a manned mission unless it is 99.99999% safe. We as a people have become uncomfortable with the slightest doubt that something is not safe, and as a result, not only has space exploration suffered, but so have our own liberties, with the PATRIOT Act and the TSA being some of the biggest affronts to our liberty in the name of safety.

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