In the United States, one of the most cherished values is liberty, which is often equated with individualism and the rights to pursue one’s own interests, needs, and desires. Yet there are many examples in history and in our current political context in which liberty and individual autonomy clash with the need to protect the greater good of the American people. At times, the pursuit of one’s individual interests can be irresponsible, lacking in consideration for others, and even threatening to the physical and philosophical security of the country. What makes negotiating these interests particularly challenging is that in many ways they are utterly abstract concepts. Thus, making decisions about constraints on individual liberty based on the belief that security needs to be ensured or equality needs to be upheld can be frustrating indeed. The text offers the example of the persistent debate regarding flag-burning. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights seem to secure our individual rights of free expression, but when our expressions impinge on the rights of others, we may need to have our rights curbed. The dilemma, of course, is determining what constitutes an impingement of one person’s rights when another individual believes himself or herself to be asserting his or her rights.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. citizens began to see how liberty, equality, and security could be cast in dynamic opposition with one another, and polis decision making processes were used to justify certain constraints on liberty. The creation of the Homeland Security Department and the subsequent sweeping changes that were made to certain rights and protections that we had historically been guaranteed were rationalized by politicians by saying that the compromises were necessary to ensure American citizens’ security. Without security, it was argued, it would be impossible for Americans to exercise their liberties.
This is but one example of how liberty, equality, and security are played against each other. In my own opinion, I do not believe that there has to be a trade-off; however, such an opinion presumes that each individual takes seriously his or her responsibility to exercise rights and liberties in a manner that is not merely self-serving, but which takes the public and the greater good into consideration also. Sadly, as we well know, this is not always the case; however, I find the alternative to be more dangerous to safety, liberty, and equality, than holding up a high standard of expectations for ourselves as citizens of a democratic nation such as the United States, where all three of these conditions were ensured by the founding fathers.