23 April 2013

Do we have a right to safety?

Michael Grunwald has stirred up a hornet's nest of commentary with his opinion post for Time's website. Entitled "Tread on Me," it's clearly meant as a dig at the "Don't Tread on Me" mentality that permeates the nation -- across the political spectrum, as Grunwald sees it -- and turns every step taken for the sake of public or national security into a controversy. Some liberals will certainly sneer at Grunwald's moment of slightly absurd moral equivalence when he claims that "The civil liberties purists of the ACLU are just as extreme as the gun purists of the NRA, or the anti-regulatory purists in business groups like the Club for Growth." This remark was inspired by some concern expressed over whether the Boston Marathon bombing defendant has been read his Miranda rights, and by squeamishness over anti-terror security measures in general. Grunwald believes that there are "slippery slopers on both ends of the political spectrum" and that both are trumped by an overriding right to safety. He subtitles his article "The Case for Freedom From Terrorist Bombings, School Shootings and Exploding Factories" -- he presumes that some lack of regulation is to blame for the Waco fertilizer explosion last week  -- and argues that this asserted freedom is fundamental in a civilized society. While liberals may resent the comments already cited, Grunwald will more likely irk the right by declaring himself an unrepentant "statist."

Those of us who support aggressive government action to protect the public ought to acknowledge that it does, at the margins, limit individual rights—the rights of gun owners, the rights of business owners, the rights of the accused. Go ahead, quote the Ben Franklin line about those who would sacrifice some liberty for security deserving neither. But what about the rights of 8-year-old Martin Richard, blown away after watching his dad finish the marathon? Who safeguarded the liberty of 6-year-old Charlotte Bacon, gunned down in her classroom in her new pink dress? What about Perry Calvin and Morris Bridges and the other victims of the West Texas explosion? Nobody read them their rights.

Predictably, most of the hostile commentary below the article comes from the libertarian right. Some of this is simply paranoid, like the comment that Grunwald favors not merely a police state but a "jail state." Many people simply can't deal with the idea that they are being controlled somehow by regulations, even those created for their own protection. Others -- and this isn't strictly an attitude of the right -- resent the implicit refusal by government to presume them innocent in any enhancement of surveillance. It's not that they have something to hide; they don't trust government, or some group that might gain control of it, not to criminalize their conduct arbitrarily at some point. The most alarming commentary, however, comes from those who take their fight to the heart of Grunwald's argument.

I had thought that people on the right, whether conservatives or libertarians, would have a specific idea of what a right to life means. Against anyone who presumes a right to be kept alive (e.g. through unlimited access to medicine), the right, I presume, would assert only a right not to be murdered. In some cases, I appear to be mistaken -- we don't even have that. One participant in the Time comment thread, identifying himself as "TerryConklin," informs an adversary that "you don't have a right to not be shot at a movie theater. just as you don't have a right not to be hit by a motorist or squashed by a meteorite." Generally speaking, he adds in a later comment, "the Constitution doesn't grant a right not to be harmed." All government provides, he explains, is a procedure for redress. You have "a right to have the shooter [or bomber, etc.] caught and prosecuted for his offense" after the fact. You have no right to safety in any preventive sense if the measures necessary to guarantee it infringe on the more clearly enumerated freedoms in the Constitution. More likely, by this reasoning, the existence of those other rights -- not just gun ownership but immunities from illegal searches and seizures and so forth -- makes any assertion of a right to safety an impossibility if not an absurdity or a demagogic lie. This is the world some Americans live in, no doubt convinced that each individual is the only effective guarantor of his own safety, so long as he's armed against all contingencies. The nearest we come to security in this NRA utopia is the universal deterrent inferred from universal armament -- like that's ever worked. There's a pretense to realism behind this viewpoint in the assumption that you can never prevent all violence, but there's also a dystopian defeatism in the assumption that there's no point to trying. If people really do think this way it's no surprise that they wonder what the point of government is.


Anonymous said...

People who claim we don't have a right to "not be murdered" should be closely watched until they crack. Then they should be terminated with extreme prejudice.

And just for the record, I really don't give a rat's behind what Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or any of these other DEAD guys had to say a couple of centuries back. They are NOT alive today, having to deal with terrorist bombers, amoklaufers, crime syndicates, street gangs and right-wing extremist militia/hate groups.

We live in the HERE AND NOW, not the "golden age" of a long buried past. Right-wing and left-wing extremists need to have that FACT drilled into their puny little brains - either through reeducation camps or copper-jacketed bullets.

Samuel Wilson said...

To be fair, the guy wasn't saying anybody had a right to murder, either. But is it really as unreasonable as people like him seem to think for other people to aspire to a preventive rather than punitive idea of justice? Is it really impossible to make it impossible for someone to shoot up a movie theater without making the world a totalitarian nightmare? I have to think not.

troutbirder said...

Well said.... Common sense seems to becoming increasingly rare today.... I also tend to think that those commentators on the extreme certainly profit from the promotion of division.

Anonymous said...

If it is "totalitarian" only towards the lunatics, then I see no problem whatsoever.