Amending Fences

amendmentsMy smart conservative friends care a great deal about the 2nd amendment, and my smart liberal friends care a great deal about the 4th. Yet both seem intent on limiting the other, and I was recently struck by the idea that the arguments about both amendments are the same. Both, I think, are about the cost of freedom.

Even for my smart conservative friends, the idea of some basic regulations of the 2nd amendment is tolerable. Overall, though, they would prefer a government that treats ownership of weapons as a necessary liberty to be protected even at cost. The fact that we have mass shootings is the price of that freedom, but they hold the freedom essential even at the cost of lives.

There are plenty of conservatives who won’t acknowledge that there is a cost, but that’s absurd on its face; of course there is a cost, as there is to every freedom. People are not inherently trustworthy as a group, and if we give the whole of us the right to own deadly weapons, some of us can and will use them against others of us. There is no way around it; we can only limit the damage, as we must, and negotiate the conflict between our two freedoms: both, in a sense, a right to safety.

There are also plenty of liberals who will argue that the cost is too high, and even some who will argue that any cost is too high. Why should we pay with children’s lives? Why should some pay in fear and death to preserve the rights of others, some of whom will only abuse those rights?

For my smart liberal friends, the idea of some basic limitations on the 4th amendment is tolerable, but far from ideal. Overall, they would prefer a government that treats privacy and freedom from search and seizure as a necessary liberty to be protected even at cost. The fact that we will lose friends and family to terrorism is the price of our freedom in other areas, but they hold that freedom essential, even at the cost of lives.

And there are some liberals who will not acknowledge that there is a cost, but of course, there still is. If we allow the whole of us the freedom of privacy, we also allow the bad among us to hide more effectively. There is no way around this either; but we hold true that, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, that “they that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither.”

And there are plenty of conservatives who declaim the cost as too high, and some who say any cost is too high, that we must not tolerate any terrorism at all, that privacy is not worth the lives of our friends and family.

Yet these two groups of people seem not to see the similarities between their positions. There are extremists of both views, who claim any regulation of firearms is unconscionable or any sacrifice of privacy anathema. But those positions can only be wrong—those positions must be wrong, because in both cases there is more than one freedom at stake, and those freedoms cannot both be perfectly preserved. We must compromise both positions, and yet also protect their integrity.

That’s where the trouble lies: in acknowledging the other freedom in the equation. Opponents of gun violence often do not acknowledge that they are moving to restrict the freedom of rights. Likewise those who consider terrorism a major threat often do not acknowledge that we must balance the need to surveil bad actors with the need to protect the privacy of other citizens.

Opponents of surveillance and gun control both would prefer to argue that they do not work, and that we therefore don’t need them. But I think that does a disservice to the freedoms and the costs both. T is disturbing to think that we pay in blood for our privacy and our guns both. It isn’t pleasant, and it isn’t comfortable.

Of course it’s uncomfortable. Of course it makes a little knot in your chest. Because that’s what freedom feels like: not easy, not simple, and not clean—just hard choices deserving of our respect.

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