Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quoting Benjamin Franklin

I've been a party to a lot discussions recently, both on and offline, regarding the latest enhanced screening procedures enacted by the TSA. In an effort to detect emerging threats to airline security, the TSA has begun deploying backscatter x-ray machines which leave little to the imagination and allow the screener to see more than some people are comfortable with. Those who do not wish to be x-rayed may opt out for a thorough pat-down instead which involves touching of the genital area. Is this a necessary evil to allow for our continued safety or is it a violation of the 4th Amendment? Personally, my mind isn't made up yet. I'll do so once I've had to endure the procedures myself.

A certain quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin is making the rounds in reaction to this debate. If you've followed the debate at all, you've probably seen some variation of it: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety". It's a good quote. It succinctly sums up the argument against the new TSA enhanced screening procedures. The trouble is, it's not necessarily attributable to Franklin. The quote appeared in that form on the dedication page of a book titled An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania authored by Richard Jackson. The book was published by Franklin in 1759. 

It would also be correct to use this specific derivative of the quote: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety". The quote, in that form, appeared sometime in early 1775 as part of Franklin's notes for a proposition at the Pennsylvania Assembly. When he wrote it down, however, he wrote it between quotation marks. Was he intending to quote Richard Jackson? Franklin had admitted that he himself was responsible for some small parts of Jackson's book, so perhaps what Franklin write in 1775 was the quote in its true form.

The two quotes above are almost certainly descended from something Franklin wrote in Poor Richard's Almanack in 1738: "Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor liberty to purchase power".It doesn't quite convey the idea with the same passion as the previous quotes, but the seed had been planted, to be sure.

It's all just minutia anyway, right? The exact wording doesn't really matter so long as the thought is still conveyed correctly. What's really important, in this case, is that we ask ourselves whether or not we are willing to give up certain freedoms in order to feel secure. And, if we are indeed willing to give up those freedoms, were we truly free to begin with?


  1. (foe anonymity)
    Looks to me like your mind is made up on the matter. Feel free to stress this issue, loud and clear.

  2. I'll readily agree that these new measures don't do much to enhance airline security. The argument as to whether or not they violate the 4th Amendment is more nuanced. As I understand it (and I haven't been through it; this is why I'm undecided), when you go to the airport you are informed of how, where, and by what method you are going to be searched. At that moment, you can then chose to decline the search. If you decline, you obviously won't be allowed to fly.

    Must a search be compulsory in order to potentially violate the 4th Amendment? Is the threat of a search enough to qualify? All good questions. I am unsure of the answer.