“He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Ben Franklin once said:
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
With this quote, Ben Franklin was arguing that a free society, built on the premise of natural rights; including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, cannot sacrifice its principals in the name of security, lest it become an un-free society. Democratic governments are historically quite fragile. Shocks, either exogenous or endogenous, can lead to drastic actions that either undermine or usurp a democratically elected government. The curtailing of rights is usually the first step. Therefore, it is unethical to curtail rights in times of war, lest we lose our ever tentative grasp on liberal democracy.
Traumatic and extraordinary times, such as war, create situations where it may seem necessary to sacrifice these rights. Free speech could be curtailed so as not to “spread enemy propaganda.” Rights to privacy and unreasonable searches could be sacrificed so as to “aid in the search for enemy spies or agents.” “Emergency Powers” may be “temporarily” given to the government for the “duration of the crisis.” Elections can be suspended due to the “necessity of war.” All of these things have traditionally been the steps through which an authoritarian or totalitarian regime usurps control from a democratic government. Indeed, during the 1930s Weimer Republic, the Nazi party under Hitler did all of these things in the name of “security.” It cannot be stressed enough that Hitler and the Nazis were democratically elected by the people of Germany. By playing to the German peoples’ anger, fears, and uncertainties, Hitler and the Nazis were able to dissolve the Weimer Republic and usher in the Third Reich.
The above example is but one of hundreds of examples throughout history. Even today, authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships justify their sweeping powers through the need for security, arguing that their methods are necessary to safeguard the nation. Famously, for instance, the government of Egypt under Sadat and Mubarak declared a “State of Emergency” in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli War. Which granted the government sweeping powers of arrest, censorship, and curtailment of human rights. This “State of Emergency” lasted until 2012 when it was rescinded in the wake of the Arab Spring. During this time, the Egyptian government enjoyed a monopoly of power at the expense of its citizenry’s right to free speech, expression, assembly, privacy, and other basic rights.
History has shown that freedom and liberty are fragile things. The world that we appreciate and depend on today hangs on a knife’s edge. Turning our attention to today’s world, we can see the same pattern in current governments. Russia, where Putin’s United Russia party has held power since the fall of the Soviet Union, is constantly beset by “threats” and “dangers” from all sides, according to the Russian media. In France, following the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Far Right “National Front” party experienced a brief surge in the polls culminating in the candidacy of Le Pen. In Turkey, Erdogan declared a state of emergency, following the 2016 coup attempt which allowed him to silence critical elements of the press and conduct purges in the name of protecting against “those who work against the state.” To date, the purge has extended beyond those directly involved in the coup to include anyone critical of his administration. Even in the United States, the fear of terrorism has catapulted candidates like Trump to the Presidency, who actively campaigned on curtailing people’s rights.
This is not because people wish to be ruled by dictators. People are simply just scared…terrified even. In their fear they turn to bullies to protect them because the bully presents strength and security. To use a more visceral analogy: Imagine being on a schoolyard playground and being bullied by a group of kids. Another kid offers to protect you from the bullies. In return, however, he asks you to do his homework. You agree, and the kid proceeds to beat up the group that was bullying you. He then comes back and says that he got in trouble with the teacher. He demands that you take the blame for him, as he helped you out. You agree to that too. After all, he did protect you from the bullies, right? As time goes on, your protector grows more and more demanding of you, eventually becoming like the bullies that he promised to protect you from to begin with. This is, essentially, what the curtailment of rights and authoritarianism is on a mass scale.
People that are scared will agree to things that they never thought they’d agree to, accept compromises that before would have seemed inconceivable. In doing so, they accept the curtailment of their rights, one by one, until there are no longer any rights. But by then, the government is there to soothe them with propaganda. Those that have curtailed those rights assure the people that all is well and safe…that security and prosperity are well within reach so long as the leaders are allowed to work their changes. But as Charlie Chaplin said in his movie, “The Great Dictator;”
“By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie, they do not fulfill their promise, they never will.”
Indeed, all of these things are lies told by the authoritarian to keep the people from realizing the awful truth: that their freedom has been stolen and their spirits have been shackled.
The curtailment of rights is a slippery slope. A right curtailed here, a new emergency power there, and if one is not careful, one can find oneself in chains. Therefore, it is unethical to curtail rights, even in times of war. When fighting monsters, one must take care not to become a monster…or allow the monster through the door.