Balancing Liberty, Safety, and Morality

I was born during World War II. Since my own conscription I have witnessed a steady increase in personal liberty. Today average people map out their own life choices, including what qualities they want from significant others, to an extent unimagined by earlier generations. Over several decades there have appeared different threats to liberty ranging from the Cold War to oil shocks, AIDS and now terrorism, but we have always managed to respond to these challenges and keep our freedoms.

Particularly during the past two decades, public debate has suggested that our freedoms may be undermined by our lack of personal morality. Often the discourse mentions various vices, such as sex outside of traditional marriage, pornography, drugs, and gambling. Others tackle morality as a group social justice issue, with emphasis on the divide between the rich and poor and the assertion that the well-off did not earn what they have. Proposals to achieve fairness by measures like affirmative action must take into account personal responsibility without blaming victims. However a common but understated thread is the idea that personal freedom needs to be authenticated by proving that it can meet the needs of others besides the self.

The new threat posed by terrorism and asymmetric warfare is not the overthrow of government by conventional military conquest. Instead, it is the possibility that we may not be able to maintain our openness and will have to curtail many civil liberties, even reduce our constitutional rights, to remain safe. At an extreme, periods of martial law could become possible. We do need principles as to how to contain the threats to liberty posed by new surveillance, and maybe we face restrictions on free speech. We need to draw a legal line at dealing with weapons of mass destruction. We must also remember that freedom cannot be taken for granted. Sometimes future freedom requires disparate sacrifice today. In this regard, discussions of ideas like national service, a shock perhaps to a younger generation, become necessary. Beyond direct victims and those affected by job losses, relatively few Americans have been expected to sacrifice for the war on terrorism.

America's new war will be relevant to gays and lesbians to the degree that the public perceives these persons as self-serving and not "paying their dues." Military service, marriage, and parenting are all ways to provide for others and to serve goals larger than the immediate self. Many social conservatives view homosexuality as inherently narcissistic and incompatible with motives that channel the self to serving others

We must ponder these things, as we can no longer wince at future hardships.


CONTACT: Bill Boushka, email me at

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Bill Boushka 2002, all rights reserved subject to fair use