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At What Point Does Protection from Danger Become a Danger to Democracy?

November 2, 2010

The great thing about living in the dorms is that for a person that is constantly procrastinating her work (namely, me, and this blog), there is always something exciting to take part in. While it is often useless banter on the slut factor of various Halloween costumes or the ridiculous amounts of homework everyone is also putting off, occasionally our conversations amount to something more meaningful. Tonight, it turns out that one of these particularly heated conversations actually motivated me to finally stop procrastinating and blog. I guess that’s what they so self-assuredly call ‘the Michigan difference’.

The conversation was about WikiLeaks releasing nearly 400,000 classified documents this past month concerning the war in Iraq (info from The website allows anonymous individuals to submit publicly unavailable documents to be placed under civilian scrutiny without fear of repercussions. The dorm room argument became whether or not the people of WikiLeaks are at fault for publishing information that is possibly detrimental to U.S. military goals and safety. This then grew into a heated debate about civilian rights to “check” their government (hint, hint, Locke), and the ideals of national security versus personal freedom (ding ding…ringing Hobbes bells, anyone?).

On the point of civilians’ responsibility to check the government and the news being an important avenue to that effect, the fundamental question of democracy comes into play. Those who believe in more of a representative democracy elect their leaders knowledgably and in turn trust their leaders’ ability to make good decisions and use discretion when necessary. John Locke, the political theorist whose beliefs ultimately became the basis of the American government, addressed (in one of the longest sentences I’ve ever read, I might add) a citizens’ “obedience to the legislative, acting pursuant to their trust” (Second Treatise of Government, Bk. 2 Ch. 11), lending to this idea. From this standpoint, it isn’t necessary for the people to analyze their government every step of the way, and when national security is concerned, perhaps the perspective that “daddy knows best” isn’t the worst route to take. On the other hand, direct democracy calls for civilians to take part in the numerous decisions of the government. In essence, the idea that people must constantly “check” government action deems release of government documents both permissible and necessary to uphold a democratic system.

The flow of the conversation then became at what point does this openness become detrimental to national security? Isn’t government secrecy sometimes necessary to secure the outcome of international affairs? In the case of WikiLeaks, the Pentagon argues that the release of these papers poses a danger to the U.S. military (according to the CNN report). Does this claim for national security override citizens’, as I call it, right to know what’s going down? Whereas political theorist Thomas Hobbes believes that individuals enter a civil society for the sole purpose of the government providing safety, he would argue that individuals relinquish their personal freedoms in exchange for this security. The argument of safety versus freedom can easily be applied to today’s society. Especially when the government has ulterior motives (which, let’s be real, they usually do), to what extent are American citizens willing to give up their rights in the name of  ‘safety’ or ‘national security’? In entering into a social contract with the government, are we giving them the right to protect us by any means necessary?

This ‘‘by any means necessary’’ idea lends political theorist, Machiavelli’s ‘dirty hands’ perspective. The Machiavellian model essentially reduces politicians to the outcomes of their actions, addressing whether the ends justify its means. Could potentially a positive outcome (ie. the safety of Americans) warrant a potentially unjust action (ie. government secrecy)? Again, it seems difficult to draw a line.

In my personal, perhaps naïve opinion, I think that the answers to these questions lie in finding a balance between all the options. While it is important to constantly analyze government action, there is some validity in the idea that American citizens trust the government to provide them with protection in exchange to adhering to laws and limitations. With that said, the question again morphs into another: to what extent does protection from danger become a danger to democracy? And as it turns out, this question lends to a much more interesting hallway discussion than that of Halloween costumes and procrastinated homework.

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  1. matteric9 permalink
    November 2, 2010 10:35 AM

    When the question of safety vs. freedom arises, there will always be a constant debate on the correct balance of the two. However, based on the government we have here in the United States, I believe it would be safe to argue that the government would have no problem withdrawing some of our freedom to secure our safety. Think of a time of disaster in our country, the government will set regulations pertaining to the disaster that will limit our freedom in one way or another. However, the primary goal of these temporary relinquished freedoms, is to secure our safety in the long run.

  2. Meredith Ambinder permalink
    November 2, 2010 12:04 PM

    Because we live in the United States, I think it’s important to step back to look at our freedoms verses people in other countries. We are blessed with a country that offers us several freedoms and rights that citizens of other countries might not have. In other words, being a citizen of the United States isn’t all that bad. I live in New Jersey so the 9/11 attacks hit pretty close to home for me. I find it ridiculous when I see people in line at security complain about having to give up their liquids or take off their shoes. Similar to the above discussion, the ultimate goal of doing this is too keep all passengers safe. I probably would not oppose a government taking away some of our freedoms for our own safety as I believe our lives are the most important thing to protect.

    • andrewjclark permalink
      November 2, 2010 2:37 PM

      I agree! And like the Professor was talking about, sometimes security measures amounts to more freedom. After 9/11, I am more likely to get on the plane (and travel around the country in the time it takes to get my ID checked at the DMV) with those simple security procedures. Now whether those procedures are prejudiced or not is a different discussion… but basically security and freedom are not mutually exclusive. And that is important to think about whenever we get into a discussion like this!

  3. Jessie Altman permalink
    November 2, 2010 12:25 PM

    I do agree that there obviously needs to be a balance between the options. However, whatever the correct balance is, I believe, completely depends on the situation at hand. During times of war, for example, there needs to be increased security to ensure our safety. While some people may disagree with increased limitations on our personal freedoms, I personally believe that it is, more often than not, necessary. Obviously, the government can go to an unnecessary extreme. For example, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt ordered all Japanese Americans and all Americans of Japanese ancestry to be put in internment camps. I feel as though their decisions to protect national security, while extreme sometimes, are necessary.

    • Michael Munoz permalink
      November 2, 2010 7:04 PM

      Just some food for thought: Japanese internment during WWII was a heavily disputed issue in the Supreme Court. In Korematsu vs. United States, the Supreme Court found that internment was a “military necessity” warranting the seclusion of Japanese Americans. Though later on, historians and political scientists agree that a majority of Japanese interned during that time were second generation Japanese, fully Americanized, and pledged their loyalty to the United States. What would happen if after 9/11, the US Government interned all people of Middle Eastern descent? Is Machiavellian logic the appropriate manner of conducting National Security?

    • blanchc permalink
      November 2, 2010 10:22 PM

      What about Guantanamo Bay? How about torture? Where do you draw the line? Once you allow the government to break its own constitution in order to “protect” its citizens, how can you ever say that they’ve gone to0 far? Who gets to decide that? I feel like there can be increased security, such as removing shoes at an airport, without overstepping bounds and disobeying constitutional laws. After all, if you allow the government too much rope they’ll hang themselves (and our country) with it.

  4. joshuacy permalink
    November 2, 2010 12:44 PM

    We can all agree, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to release some information, like locations of military personnel/weapons, attack strategies, the Presidential convoy’s layout, etc. But where is the line drawn? It’s all arbitrary.

    In my personal opinion, the government is behind WikiLeaks, having set up the to further control the flow of information to the public. Why hasn’t any evidence of extraterrestrial life been released?

    So, to provide an answer to your question, I believe that the Truth is the most important thing. Everyone has a right to know what they have a will to learn. The Truth is out there.

    • mbhilton permalink
      November 3, 2010 2:45 PM

      Some truths don’t need to be known. I won’t argue that cutting through political bs is good and important, but anything that may compromise the safety of our troops who are just doing their job should stay hidden. Just because we want to know the truth doesn’t mean we should jeopardize the lives of those who protect us.

  5. jptrue permalink
    November 2, 2010 1:08 PM

    I think an interesting perspective to your discussion of Hobbes would be to ask if Wikileaks is even considered to be within the social contract. The motives of Wikileaks is obviously to discredit the actions of their government and their legitimacy. Therefore, as a member of the commonwealth, I would venture that the members of Wikileaks have stepped outside of the social contract between the people and the government. Therefore, they have reverted into a state of nature. This has two ramifications. First, it means that what Wikileaks is doing isn’t necessarily wrong, but expected. Since they have forfeited their membership to the commonwealth, they no longer have to submit their obedience in order to receive protection. Thus, their actions aren’t necessarily wrong, just inconvenient and challenging to the US. At the same time however, since Wikileaks is acting outside of the contract, they are not ensured protection by the government. This means that it is completely justified for the US to attack the organization and its members and seek to punish them for their threatening behavior to our commonwealth.

  6. Michael Munoz permalink
    November 2, 2010 6:34 PM

    I think it is important to note the diversity of the WikiLeaks organization, in terms of the sensitivity of some the material they choose to cover. WikiLeaks has often been labeled as generally anti-US, releasing images, documents, and videos pertinent to the War on Terror. For instance, WikiLeaks’ latest release was classified US Military documents disclosing the futility of the War in Afghanistan, noting that Pakistan’s Government has been acting as a double agent. This information is actually extremely valuable to the American people, following a Machiavellian line of logic. WikiLeaks basically announced that America’s Foreign Wars may not be as successful as presidential administrations once stated to the American people. This type of information is absolutely necessary to the maintaining government transparency and revealing the truth of the War on Terror as it informs us that we may have been deceived and political action is necessary to dethrone those responsible for such a cover-up. On the other hand though, some information can be dangerous if revealed to the general public, like blueprints of the skyscrapers, bridges, and military vehicles. This type of information is pernicious to the defending America. So, it is important to discern the potential collateral damage that WikiLeaks causes or the good it performs in respect to the United States.

  7. Jorge Rodriguez-Larrain permalink
    November 2, 2010 7:26 PM

    The article raises an important question, “to what extent does protection from danger become a danger to democracy?”. As already mentioned, the terrorist attack in 9/11 can serve as a clear example for this. Now, people have to undergo high scrutiny in an airpot, we are giving up many rights for our own protection. It is important to point out that people are aware of this and still choose to undergo the different procedures, because they realize that it is for their own safety. Because of this, I think that people will rather give away some rights for their own security.

  8. February 28, 2011 4:54 PM

    I believe there must be a balance, but balance is different for every country. In the U.S we have minimal corruption compared to other countries and a very free system for electing representatives. It is in our best interest to allow the government to have secrets for the protection of our military and ourselves. I also oppose Wikileaks because I believe they focus too much on the U.S. WikiLeaks states that their primary interest is exposing oppressive regimes. Now that we know their primary interest, we should ask ourselves if they have exposed any information on North Korea. The answer is no. Does Wikileaks believe North Korea is transparent? If anything Wikileaks should “be dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public” about North Korea. I believe Wikileaks has lost focus in present-day reality.

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