The long-standing debate over how to balance our concern for security with our desire for freedom tends, these days, to focus on threats to so-called national security. Ever since the Rubicon events of 9/11, we have entered a new political space in which the concern about terrorism dominates our national consciousness. But the question of how to balance liberty and security also arises in contexts that don’t involve national security: Consider debates between those who want stricter gun control and those championing the Second Amendment, for instance. Depending on the context in question, these various debates will naturally stress different issues. But if we zoom out a bit, and concentrate not on specific controversies but larger framing issues, we can see important similarities we might have overlooked. 

Let’s begin, perhaps surprisingly, with a cartoon I saw in a Chicago newspaper in the early 1990s. At the time, a debate was swirling around whether to grant to the Chicago police certain unusual powers (I can’t recall exactly what) to help combat an outburst of violent crime but with some attendant loss of liberty. The cartoon showed a map of the greater Chicagoland area, including the city and surrounding suburbs. From a downtown neighborhood came a plea to grant the police those unusual steps. From the suburbs, the voice of the ACLU denounced the proposed threat to freedom.  

The cartoon’s brilliance lay in capturing the importance, always, of attending to perspective and position when we think about balancing freedom and security. The wealthy suburbanites, not facing fatalities and violence in their own backyards, would gain little by the proposal to increase police powers; their position made it easy for them to take a stand defending the extraordinary importance of freedom. Many whose lives were most directly affected by the threat of violent crime, on the other hand, seemed willing to concede some freedom to make their lives more secure, thereby aligning with a strong tradition of political thought stressing that freedom means little where our safety is not secured and that security is, in this sense, the more basic value.

But, of course, (and this is the cartoon’s final point) not everyone is forced to choose. Even as we understand the position of those who wanted to give the police greater powers, that is hardly a solution to be happy with. For it means that some people will, predictably, have their freedom constrained in ways others don’t, and that the state is therefore not treating all its citizens equally. This worrisome implication the ACLU grasped astutely. (To say nothing of the fear, enacted in the killings of people like George Floyd, Eric Garner, and Breonna Taylor, that members of certain communities remain especially vulnerable to harm from the police.) 

When we turn to the context of national security, we see many of the same issues. If we grant the state increased powers of scrutiny and oversight, they are likely to be deployed in ways that have a disproportionate effect: People who look a certain way, worship a certain god, and fit a certain profile are more likely than others to be the object of close surveillance. Given limited energy and resources, some such narrowing of focus may seem both tempting and sensible. But the challenge such measures present to basic principles of equal treatment, the likelihood they will be abused, the undermining of a common idea of citizenship encompassing all people — all of these should make us gravely concerned over such approaches. The worry, in short, is that we are choosing not for all of us to sacrifice some liberty to improve our security, but for the liberty of some to be sacrificed to improve the security of others. 

The importance of positionality also plays out in our collective decision to identify a challenge called “national security” and then elevate it to unmatched prominence. One question we might ask ourselves is how, exactly, national security differs from the security of our fellow nationals. In 2021 the city of Chicago reported 797 murders. At that rate, the number killed would, over four years, surpass that of all who died on 9/11. And that’s just one city. To be sure, the 9/11 attacks, and the threat of terrorism on the whole, seem to carry a unique significance; that fact I can’t deny. But then again, how much does that judgment reflect the fact that I, myself, am much more likely to be flying on a plane than to be walking the streets of a Chicago neighborhood with high crime rates? Even as the worry over terrorism magnetically absorbs our collective concern over security, we shouldn’t lose sight of more prosaic, more pedestrian, but equally lethal threats to the security of our fellow Americans. In thinking about balancing security and liberty, it turns out, there are not just two values at stake. 

— David McCabe, who is the Richard J. and Joan Head Chair in philosophy, published an essay on this topic, “National Security, Self-rule, and Democratic Action,” in the Journal of Ethics: An International Philosophical Review in 2021.