Newt Gingrich, former Congressman and possible 2008 presidential candidate spoke at the Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award Dinner last Monday. In his speech, Gingrich explained that in order to fight terrorists, we will need to cut off their freedom of speech.
"My view is that either before we lose a city, or if we are truly stupid after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that we use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us, to stop them from recruiting people before they get to reach out and convince young people to destroy their lives while destroying us."On Tuesday, conservative writer and radio host Dennis Prager wrote abut the upcoming oath of office by Keith Ellison, the newly-elected Congressman from Minnesota. Ellison is a Muslim, and he is planning on swearing on the Koran instead of the Bible. Prager voiced his disapproval.
"When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization. If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11."Liberal bloggers are predictably up in arms. Many writers have commented on the somewhat strained appeals to the threat of terrorism, saying that Gingrich and Prager are using scare tactics instead of rational arguments. Plenty of posts point out the irony of speaking out against free speech at a First Amendment award ceremony, and many have pointed out the logic of Ellison swearing on the holy book he actually believes in. Some conservative see things differently. But I won't comment either way along those lines, because at the heart of their arguments, both Prager and Gingrich are right. I agree with them. At least, I agree with their basic premise. Democracy, even representative democracy, is scary. They are correct -- freedom of speech and freedom of religion are difficult. This is an important lesson that I wish all Americans would learn: our Constitution, our form of government, our very way of life is putting you at risk every hour of every second of every day. If we allow anyone to say just about anything, some people might say bad things. Hurtful, dangerous things. Things we don't agree with. If we allow anyone to believe whatever they want, some people will challenge the beliefs we hold most sacred! What if a terrorist creates a web page that convinces others to attack America? What if Ellison, or someone like him, is so eloquent, so charismatic, that average, Christian Americans convert to Islam en mass? What if the majority of voters elect a person who turns out to be untrustworthy or deceitful? But there is a point where I begin to disagree with Gingrich, Prager, President Bush, and possibly a large percentage of the population: I am willing to accept the risks. I think the risks are well worth the rewards. I am willing to accept the risks of living in a free society. I'm not asking for a plane to crash into my house or soliciting an anthrax-laden envelope, but I am willing to live with the possibility that these things will happen, because I believe in free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. Some times you just have to stand up for what you think is right. I cannot fault Gingrich or Prager's arguments if they are not willing to stand up, if they aren't willing to take the risks, and if they don't believe in freedom or representative democracy. Perhaps it is just too scary for them--these frightening, terrifying possibilities. I wouldn't ask a coward to defend liberty any more than I would ask an acrophobic to walk a tightrope. I also think the risks are well worth the rewards. If we allow people to believe and say anything that they want, we increase the chance that new ideas, better ideas, and more valuable ideas are created and propagated. I suspect (although this is far from proven) that these freedoms are the reason why the United States has been so successful, and I think it is telling that the countries with the highest standards of living have similar freedoms. To be quite honest, the risks aren't even that bad. In fact, in countries with representative governments and free market economies, you are 390 times more likely to die in a car crash than in a terrorist attack. In 2001, so many people died in car crashes in the U.S. that the terrorists would have had to have a 9-11 level attack every 26 days to keep up. If the terrorists could pull of a 9-11 attack every year, you would still be more likely to die walking across the street than in an attack. I'm not even sure what material risks Prager imagines - he does mention that if Ellison can swear an oath on the Koran, then a Jew could swear on the Torah and an atheist could swear on Voltaire. I have a hard time quantifying that. He worries it is "damaging to the fabric of American civilization," but does not say what kind of fabric this is - apparently it is not woven from the Bill of Rights or Article VI of the Constitution. It's not surprising that Gingrich, Prager and others are bad at assessing risks, people are hard-wired to overestimate some dangers over others. But I would suggest to them, that if they are so afraid, that they should consider advocating the abolition of the automobile, or arguing for strict enforcement against jaywalking. If they think prior restraint, instituting state religion, and even waterboarding are valid methods to combat the threat of terrorism, surely they would agree to even harsher methods to lessen car crashes. Personally, I would say that we should definitely devote some time, effort, and money to fighting terrorism - if terrorists are using the Internet, then we should train our military and police to investigate and gather evidence and intelligence effectively using the Internet. But even if Gingrich could guarantee we could stop all attacks (and prevent any damage to the cotton-polyester weave of our civilization) by suspending these rights, I would not want to do so. I guess I'm just not that big of a wuss.