Obama's Right and Cheney Doesn't Get It: Freedom Makes Us Strong

Don't be fooled by the notion that open societies are weak.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The president made an important point today that really can't be understated: Our freedoms and our democratic form of government are a great strength and aid to our national security. George W. Bush used to talk about freedom, and argue that our enemies didn't understand freedom. But I never got the sense that those around Bush, particularly Dick Cheney, understood freedom. Cheney and his allies come from the grim realist school of foreign policy, which sees weakness in an open society waiting to be exploited by more ruthless enemies. A quarter century ago, that enemy was the Soviet Union—presumably stronger because its leaders could act as they saw fit, unfettered by the rule of law and freedoms which protect individuals. Now that enemy is al Qaeda, preying, we're told, on our open (read: weak) society.

The shock and trauma of 9/11 gave an excuse to act on these impulses. People who claim to be strict constructionists invented extraordinary powers for the president in the name of national defense and curtailed the reach of our laws on the theory that our system was not otherwise capable of handling this new enemy.

It is true that at times through history our liberties have been abridged in the name of national security. Lincoln, for example, suspended habeas corpus. And in some of these cases (specifically where the country's existence was at stake), these moves might have been justified.

But remember this about al Qaeda and its ilk: Terrorists do not in and of themselves pose an existential threat to the United States of America. Can they kill large numbers of people? Yes. But nothing that al Qaeda can do will cause the United States to cease to exist. The existential danger we do face is that we undermine our values and emasculate our liberties in the name of security.

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