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home : insight & opinion : guest columns June 28, 2016

6/21/2013 10:22:00 AM
Freedom-for-security trade troubling
For the Daily News

Would I rather be a martyr for peace, or overreaching in my advocacy of self-defense? No one likes to be bullied and neither does our country, but the path we alter may be our own when we overreact to tragedies like Sept. 11, 2001.

They were turbulent times when I was in college, too. President Kennedy had been assassinated while I was still a student at Robinson High School, Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis later, and JFK's brother, Robert, was killed after winning the California primary. These were acts of domestic terrorism. There was an unpopular war and strongly divided opinions about what to do about it.

I had been to Chicago for the Democratic Convention in 1968 and had seen things that made me think the country was coming apart at the seams. At Kent State the National Guard murdered four college students who were demonstrating against the war, and I learned later from one of the guardsmen who participated that they had been given live ammunition before being deployed "to show those commie hippies they can't run the country."

I attended a small rally back on campus put on by Students for a Democratic Society, and since I was a Democrat, and a student, I signed the roster on the clipboard that was passed around by the campus police to identify who attended. I had nothing to hide and was not doing anything wrong - or so I thought.

That was in 1969. I graduated in 1970, stayed on for graduate school a while, married, got a job offer and moved to Gainesville, Fla. Life was good.

In 1973 there was a demonstration on the University of Florida campus there about something concerning foreign policy and government action overseas. I did not attend and, frankly, was no longer interested. But that evening, two men in dark suits with sunglasses showed up at my door and asked to come in.

I said "no," and asked them who they were. They identified themselves with FBI badges and revealed that I was being "watched" because I was a member of the SDS and was in a place where an anti-government demonstration had taken place,

I was a suspect. I laughed out loud. They did not. 

I had been watched, they said, and my phone had been tapped, and they knew who I talked to and what I said. I thought about this, and would have laughed again since there was nothing to hear, but the very idea of it made me fail to see the humor. It had been nearly five years since I had put my name on a list for attending a public meeting on a college campus a thousand miles away.

"We have a file on you," they said. "I bet you do," I answered.

We had a discussion on the porch and exchanged views. For my part, I described a free country where citizens can hold and express opinions different from those in office at the time and not be harassed about it, or have their privacy violated, or be tracked from place to place, or have their employer contacted and questioned about whether they had noticed any suspicious or subversive activity. 

That was to happen next; predictably, I lost my job and the one after that, and the one after that. I finally switched to self-employment, which was worse; my boss was completely unreasonable in his expectations of how hard I should work.

From their point of view, the FBI probably thought it had done a service to the country. From mine, it was a different story.

I survived, as did the country, but they were wasting their time and the country's resources poking into my business when nothing I was doing was anything other than what it should have been. I am patriotic enough to have considered the inconvenience part of my duty to my country, but like a lot of things I see supposedly intelligent people do, I thought what they were doing was stupid, and I still do.

Now fast-forward 40 years and give the government sweeping powers to listen to every phone call and read every text message or email everyone might send or receive, and the problem expands. Yes, I know there are terrorists, and I know we have foiled potential attacks, for which I am grateful. But we live in a less-free society as a result, and that bothers me. It bothers me more than the bloodsucking little gnats that have taken up residence here now, and they bother me quite a bit.

I am less sure what to do about the gnats, though, than I am what to do about why terrorists want to harm us. Then as now, I believe every dollar spent at home is better spent than one in a foreign country where we are not welcomed or wanted. And the dynamic of America sending its soldiers and its money to make life better somewhere else has worn itself out with me. That I taught history for 40 years may have something to do with my views, but it is even more revealing to travel to the places where America has come and lent its guiding hand. We are hated in as many places as we are welcomed, if not more.

I am old enough to understand retribution, but Bin Laden is dead, and I have grandchildren now who are the age I was when all this began. If that is not long enough, then will it ever be?

These words, too, will likely be reported in the NSA's national database and probably find their way into their file of unpatriotic commentary, so my name may once again find its way onto a list of "suspicious characters" who doubted the judgment of those in power. Rather than have them do something stupid like last time and misread what I mean, I will be clear: 

A free society deprived of its freedom in the name of national security is no longer free.

If that's too cryptic for them, they can come to my porch again like last time, and I will spell it out for them with words not fit to print. Spare the code breaker's insights and skip the analysis; let's talk.

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