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Henningsen: The Price Of Freedom

When random hit-and-run tactics prompt the United States or European nations to consider sacrificing freedom for security, let alone actually do so, terrorists win. Groups like the Islamic State wield the power of fear: that unreasoning, contagious anxiety that can lead a society to trade historic freedoms for an illusion of security. Note, for example, increasing hostility to immigration of Syrian refugees in Europe and the United States, despite the fact that the Paris and California killers were neither Syrian nor refugees.

Another potent terrorist weapon is timing. The recent tragedies put Europe and the US into a defensive crouch, altering immigration policies and political contests. For the Islamic State this is a rich payoff for relatively little investment. Time is their friend. They can wait – letting fear of renewed attacks build, warping the behavior of democratic societies even further – before striking again.

In response, democracies feel compelled to remain constantly on guard: eyeing foreigners and even their own citizens with suspicion; restricting traditional freedoms in the name of security; diverting billions from badly needed social programs. Again, from a terrorist perspective, what’s not to like?

But preventing further terrorism shouldn’t come at the cost of what it means to be a democracy. If fear makes us a closed, tightly regulated society, terrorists win. To defy them we must remain open, welcoming, tolerant; even when we know that puts us at risk of what happened in San Bernardino. Yes, we’ll be fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. That’s what free societies do. Obviously, we must protect ourselves. Getting more sensible gun laws would be a good start. But a democracy must always strike the balance between freedom and security on the side of freedom: not in spite of the risks, but because of them.

Americans don’t choose to do certain things because they’re easy, John Kennedy once said, but because they’re hard. This may be hardest of all. Democracy’s struggle against terrorism is a war of ideas, and it takes time for better ideas to drive out bad ones. Meanwhile, if we’re to remain true to what we believe ourselves to be, we can’t let fear define us.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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