Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

I mentioned a Benjamin Franklin quote a few days ago in a story discussing the damage that has been done in history by ordinarily decent people who have become frightened by a chaotic event which has penetrated the patina of our illusion of order.

They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor security. Benjamin Franklin

Franklin’s experience in both the American and French revolutions gave him a full palette of atrocities as examples of frightened man’s inhumanity to man.

These events always appear to be non sequiturs when observed from the comfort of our living rooms. The Turk threatening Venice in Othello; Plague in Spain and war with the Moors led Isabella to expel the Jews from Spain in 1492; Plague in Italy burned Savonorolla in Florence; in Italy, 2 million unemployed and 50% inflation led to food riots in 1920, the occupation of the factories by 500,000 workers in September 1920, and the March on Rome by fascist squadristi in October 1922, made 39 year old (former Socialist) newspaper editor, Benito Mussolini Italy’s youngest Prime Minister; the Great Depression triggered the election of Hitler and the Holocaust that followed. But they are not random acts; they are the inhumane acts of frightened people. Unfortunately, people will do almost anything to restore our imaginary sense of order.

History also provides examples of leaders great enough to stand up against reactionary pressures to restore both order and humanity. Thomas Jefferson, for example, acted the moment he became President to rescind the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had been passed by a fearful Congress and signed by John Adams in 1798.

There is an opportunity today to provide the same leadership Thomas Jefferson showed 200 years ago. But it will require courage to stand up to the mob, tell them it’s time to calm down, that we’re OK now, that it’s time to go back to work. And it will require selfless dedication to forego the popularity and easy political gains to be had by fanning the flames of people’s fears. We badly need that leadership today.

The American public was so frightened by the attacks on 2001 that we stand up and cheer whenever a political leader promises the return of our sense of security. This has fostered reactionary policies we have not seen since the days of Joe McCarthy. End-runs around due process and right to trial (Guantanamo), end runs around restrictions on search and seizure in the Patriot Act, the bloated Homeland Security and TSA programs, restrictions on visas of all kinds, the finan cial terrorism of Sarbanes-Oxley, and the rampages of Elliott Spitzer are the practical manifestations of our fears.

We have allowed our fears to compromise our lives and our principles in ways Benjamin Franklin would have found dangerous and destructive of ourselves. Fear is by far more destructive than terrorists. Our sense of security lives in our minds, not in our airports. That is where it will ultimately be restored. It couldn’t be soon enough.


John Rutledge


  1. alex morrow

    May 9, 2005

    Congratulations. This is a wonderful post. I remember years ago when the worry du jour was huge budget deficits, John Kenneth Galbraith commenting not to worry. As a society the US has a history of eventually acting responsibly to deal with its problems. We did for a while.

    I expect the same history will apply to our preoccupation with security and how it has steadily eroded our principles.

    We need a leader to step forward and articulate this. Where are the democrats?

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