A couple of days ago, my math professor went off on a tangent and said we, as students, should get more involved in discussions of politics and everyday life. “Write a letter to the editor, or at least talk about things amongst yourselves. You should really take up your right to express your opinion,” he said, and then added jokingly “Do it while you can. You never know when the people in brown will stop you from doing so.” The class met this last remark with a collective blank stare.
“You do know who the people in brown are, right?” he asked a student in the first row. The student responded, “UPS?”
It was only after my professor started explaining about Germany and WWII that students realized he was talking about the secret police in the Third Reich. Then, when he said that we should not take our freedom for granted because the people in Germany never thought it would come to what it did in the end either, some people even laughed.
For days now, I have not been able to get this rather short exchange out of my head. It had only been a remark made to give a student the chance to ponder a math problem, but it showed how we are taking our liberties for granted. I think it is right to say that people in Germany never thought that things would get as bad as they got in the end. Who in their right mind would give their liberties up by free will? And, of course things could never get as bad here; or could they?
In a post-Sept. 11 world, things are not as easy anymore. We, citizens of the self-proclaimed land of the free, can now be held on secret evidence because everybody is considered a potential terrorist. In theory (this would never occur, because we all know the justice system never fails), innocent people could be held in prison indefinitely without a trial. The essential rule that people are innocent until proven guilty — the right for a trial and due process — are no more.
Of course, this can only happen to “evildoers,” never to regular law abiding citizens and only under special circumstances, people who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear, right? Wrong. A democracy in which an opinion cannot be expressed freely is not a democracy. It definitely is nothing as bad as the Third Reich, but every concession that is made to limit our constitutional rights undermines the basis of our society.
Career politicians can hardly be expected to stand up in congress and say, “Mr. Speaker, I think the things you are saying are total garbage,” even if they are. The regular citizen, on the other hand, can go on the street and protest. That is, of course, if there are no limitations to protests, such as designated “first amendment zones” or if they have to be afraid that neighbors will tip off the FBI and they will be brought in for interrogation.
No right we have should be taken for granted. Once they are gone, it will be very hard to bring them back. Or as Benjamin Franklin put it best: “They that can give up essential liberty for a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Sebastian Meyer is a junior majoring in environmental science.