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Wednesday, 18 January 2006 00:00

Living in fear of ... everything

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It started over a discussion about the merits of that sanitizing gel that is now so often found in restrooms, grocery stores, gyms and elsewhere, the stuff that’s supposed to kill germs and stem the spread of colds and other minor illnesses. After a huge bottle showed up in our workplace, one of my co-workers kind of snickered when we were discussing its merits. His comment went something like this: “God, people work too hard to try and protect themselves against everything. It’s like living life in fear.”

And so we do, especially here in America, live lives where it seems our primary motivation is to insulate ourselves from the chance occurrences that might turn out bad. The trade off for obsession with safety, though, may be larger than we imagine.

Afraid of kidnappers and molesters, we shuttle our children from place to place as they get overweight from lack of exercise. We insure against everything in some vain attempt to protect ourselves from the effects of all manner of harm, financial woes, theft, a cracked windshield, a fall while walking down the sidewalk, and whatever else may happen as we go through life. We spend such a large portion of our time trying to make life’s ride so smooth that we live in fear of its peaks and valleys.

It’s that singular attempt to do away with fear, I believe, that is also sapping our inclination to be outraged when a president infringes on our basic civil liberties. The issue that should have caused an uproar was the revelation by the New York Times a few weeks ago that President Bush authorized eavesdropping on U.S. citizens just months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He gave the National Security Agency authority to listen in on phone calls and emails of suspected terrorists.

That, of course, is against the law. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was passed after Congress learned that the government spied on civil rights activists and anti-war protestors. Less than 30 years ago, those in Washington thought the citizenry deserved to be treated with the dignity rather than disdain.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that we could be attacked while the administration tried to obtain the necessary warrants to conduct this wiretapping. No, the paperwork to listen in on our private conservations can be obtained in just a few hours if there is justification. The Times also reported that in some cases, the government can listen in for 72 hours before getting a warrant. And the court that hands down these decisions meets in closed session, so there’s little chance of the government’s intentions being leaked to anyone.

The argument, of course, is that we are at war, and presidents must sometimes take extraordinary measures. That’s an assertion that deserves a wide open, ferocious public debate in all corners of this country. What saddens me, though, is that this news seemed to cause more of an uproar in the press than in the barber shops, college campuses and corner diners.

So if we are going to allow the government to listen in without warrants, how do we know they’ll just listen in on potential terrorists? Are we left to trust an administration and its handlers who, in many cases, have blatantly lied to the American public?

The issue, though, is not whether one supports George Bush or not. This is bigger than one president. If suspending basic civil liberties like privacy causes no heartburn, how long will it take before those who are in power use this authority to, perhaps, help swing an election or to dig up dirt on a political opponent? Of course, that would never happen in Washington.

The problem is that no one cares enough to do anything. We are so afraid that the next terrorist attack could be in our hometown that we are willing to just sit back, remote control in hand, and flip to another channel. There we will hear the story of another child kidnapping. Never mind the fact that child kidnappings and child abuse are on the decline. The 24-hour news channels follow the incidents non-stop, and we live in fear. When we have had enough, we’ll switch over to another channel and learn that members of Congress are accepting bribes from a lobbyist. Of course, there is nothing that can be done to take money out of politics because it would violate our First Amendment rights, which suddenly have become very important to those in charge.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts put it nicely a couple of weeks ago when he said that “freedom deserves a better epitaph than fear.” In a country that lives in fear of everything from germs to terrorism, perhaps we will eventually get what we deserve — a listless, banal society where the government gives and takes what it deems necessary to protect us from every sort of danger imaginable.

OK, I’ll shut up, sit up straight, and keep my mouth closed. Could someone please pass the hand sanitizer?

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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