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The Limits of National Insecurity

By Eric Bernhardt | Experience as Evidence Essays

I stood in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in November of 2002, along side my brother Hans, with whom I share a love of rubber chickens. Hans and I always bring a small stash of rubber chickens with us on our travels because we have found that they cause perfect strangers to smile, laugh, and respond in ways they would not otherwise. On this comfortable fall day, within sight of the fabled Forbidden City, the Great Hall of the People, and the Tiananmen Gate (“the Gate of Heavenly Peace”), we felt the warmth of thousands of Chinese tourists whose language we did not speak. Several of them pointed to us and shouted “gee!” (the Mandarin pronunciation for “chicken”). Children laughed. It was delightful--until the moment at which Hans and I tried to photograph a rubber chicken in front of the famously huge portrait of Mao Ze Dong. We were still positioning ourselves and had yet to snap the photo when a hand reached out of the crowd, firmly grasping Hans' shoulder. The hand belonged to a deadly serious Chinese man in plain clothes who looked us in the eye and said in English, “No.” As soon as we had meekly put away the chicken, the man disappeared back into the crowd. China had come a long way since Mao's bloody Cultural Revolution. But now, standing in front of Mao, I could not help being haunted by the thought of what occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when the tanks of the People's Liberation Army rolled over unarmed college students. I feared that, even in 2002, it might be dangerous to carry a rubber chicken in Beijing.

Governments are often insecure, just as people. Insecure people act to address their insecurity. For example, if a person feels he does not have enough money, he might A) simply complain about it, B) find a better job, or C) rob a bank. The first response perpetuates the problem; the second requires long-term effort, but with positive effect; the third provides instant gratification, but with far worse consequences. How do governments tend to behave when they feel insecure about their ability to govern? They might A) do nothing about it and become non-functional, B) work within the terms of their mandate (ex. the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, etc.) for long-term solutions, or C) violate the terms of their mandate to regain an instant sense of security.

Individuals do not get a free pass when picking the instant gratification option. It is a rare person who can choose option C and ever resume a normal life. Governments, however, sometimes do manage to get back to normal after opting for instant gratification. Consider that President Lincoln held the state of Maryland under martial law for the entire American Civil War. In that place and time a person could be incarcerated for any reason, with no presentation of evidence. I could have been jailed indefinitely for trying to take a picture of a rubber chicken in front of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, had the act been considered threatening to the government's position. Our beloved President Lincoln had “turned off” the Constitution for people like me. Would it have really been possible for something as harmless as a rubber chicken to be deemed subversive? Well, yes, conceivably so. Such was the case during World War II, when Japanese Americans were forcibly interned for merely being of Japanese ancestry. Governments typically have guns and levels of organization that individuals do not. And if a government's over-zealousness only affects a small portion of the population negatively, most people will let it pass and move on. Now, one hundred plus years after the Civil War, Maryland has recovered nicely; and I do not fear being jailed for photographing a rubber chicken in front of a portrait of President George W. Bush.

But the US Constitution can still be “turned off.” Today, in the United States, non-citizens can be held indefinitely with no evidence presented against them. Some folks argue that the Constitution only applies to US citizens, which would seem to suggest that the human rights laid out in the Constitution are not universal. But if that is the case, then I'm trying to figure out how I would tell a Chinese government official they need to lighten up and treat people better than they do now. If the official pointed out to me that not everyone in the US is granted the same rights I am asking the Chinese to recognize, I would have to either admit that my government is wrong, or else that the US gets a pass because it is in a state of war and thus curtailing rights to maintain security. The Chinese official would then likely explain that his government is just responding sensibly to behavior it deems dangerously subversive. In other words, the Chinese government feels insecure. And I have to admit that when you are trying to hold together a nation of 1.3 billion people – something no other government in history has ever done - there is probably a lot of insecurity to go around.

I have to believe, when reflecting on Tiananmen Square, that there should be stark limits to what a government allows itself to do to relieve its own insecurity. But what beacon should guide the defining of those limits - the flame of human rights, or the flare of national security? The question goes beyond the superficial right to photograph a toy chicken to the serious right to pronounce one's government in err. If you do not have the former, you certainly will not get the latter. And if you lose the latter, can you really expect to keep the former? While in bright, bustling Tiananmen Square, I assumed that the totalitarian Chinese government followed our every move and watched to see if we posed a supposed threat. I resented and feared such scrutiny, especially in a country known for human rights abuses. Yet back here in the United States, I am told by a friend who works for the National Security Agency that I cannot conceive of how much private data the NSA scrutinizes, nor how easily broken are the software encryptions that protect that data. I find it disturbing that, in my own country, private information is harvested on such a grand scale, even for the sake of security.

But I am also haunted by another vivid experience from my first visit to Beijing in October 2000, on the day when my American travel companions and I woke to the news that the USS Cole, a US Naval ship in Yemen, had been bombed. We were paralyzed. Was the US at war? Here we were, half-way around the globe, in the world's largest Communist country. What was going on at home? Could we go back home? I was suddenly stunned by the realization that I was now the beneficiary of the ultimate state security, imposed by the same Chinese government that had erased the lives of so many unarmed civilians in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Any foreign terrorist intent upon killing US citizens would not be able to get to us in China. It was shocking. At that moment I felt safer in a totalitarian state than I would have in my own country. September 11th of the following year brought confirmation that US citizens were indeed vulnerable in their own country. We can cling to our rubber chickens while we have breath to breathe. But we cannot avoid the question – how much insecurity are we willing to endure to keep them?