A safer America versus an open America; regulation versus civil liberties; federal spending versus a hope and a prayer.
These issues are now at the forefront, with the recent events in Boston and Texas, along with the ongoing debate over cutting federal spending to address the debt crisis. When two young, suspected radicals are able to maim, kill and shut down a major city at a loss of millions in commercial activity, two questions must be asked.
When a nondescript fertilizer company can ignore regulations on storing dangerous chemicals and a small town is decimated, the same two questions come to mind.
The first question is as old as democratic political theory and our Constitution. How much personal freedom are we willing to give up in order to avoid an act of intentional or reckless harm? How many cameras on poles? How many searches of our communication records? How many unannounced raids on fertilizer factories or suspension of constitutional legal guarantees are too many? Where do we draw the line between security and regulation, on the one hand, and the open society that sets us apart from the rest of the world, on the other?
The second question is one of limited resources and the national debt. Whether a tragedy is averted or not, enhanced security and enforcing regulations cost money. Lots of money. In this time of austerity, favoring these goals will bring reductions in other worthwhile areas. For example, many communities might prefer spending federal and state dollars on increased economic incentives to lure a large sporting event or chemical factory into their own backyard over providing security at major events or regulatory enforcement of dangerous chemicals.
Then there are the effects of the across-the-board cuts designed to reduce the deficit. The automatic sequester cuts in January have forced layoffs and cutbacks in the federal programs and agencies designed to prevent the events in Boston and Texas. We also know that state and local enforcement capabilities have been drastically reduced in recent years due to mandatory cutbacks.
Sometimes events sharpen our view of the landscape and force us to see what was previously in the fog and unpleasant to look at. Each of us must determine our own tolerance for giving up some of the freedom that American democracy has come to represent, and where providing funding for this goal fits among our other priorities. In other words, we must ask ourselves the two questions: How much of a “Big Brother”-style national security effort, to seek out and prevent intentional acts, is appropriate, and how much regulatory enforcement, to seek out and prevent reckless acts, is appropriate? And how will we pay for it?