At What Point Does Protection from Danger Become a Danger to Democracy?
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 cnn.com). 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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