Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 1, 2015

Security versus Liberty and a third option

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 1, 2015

Johnson-at-Podium_Westminister College

Above, Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security speaking on September 16

A couple of days after I began this most recent hiatus, Secretary Johnson spoke at Westminster College in Missouri.  An old friend happened to be in the audience.  I have not seen any media coverage.  I’ve since found a transcript.

In his speech the Secretary tells a personal story that I had not previously heard.  For me it is compelling because the story is–at least as the Secretary renders it–a parable of a compromised hero, principles long-defended but ultimately forsaken, and an early death.  This is an interesting parable for a Secretary of Homeland Security to choose to tell.  I hope you will read his story and the entire speech.

Here are a few lines from toward the end, well after the personal story was concluded.

I can build you a perfectly safe city, but it will amount to a prison. 

I can guarantee you a commercial air flight perfectly free from the risk of terrorist attack, but all the passengers will be forced to wear nothing but hospital-like paper smocks, and not be allowed any luggage, food, or the ability to get up from their seats. 

I can do the same thing on buses and subways, but a 20 minute commute to work would turn into a daily, invasive two-hour ordeal. You’d rather quit your job and stay home.

I can guarantee you an email system perfectly free from the risk of cyber attack, but it will be an isolated, walled-off system of about 10 people, with no link to the larger, interconnected world of the Internet. 

I can profile people in this country based on their religion, but that would be unlawful and un-American.    

We can erect more walls, install more screening devices, and make everybody suspicious of each other, but we should not do so at the cost of who we are as a Nation of people who cherish our privacy, our religions, our freedom to speak, travel and associate, and who celebrate our diversity and our immigrant heritage.

In the final analysis, these are the things that constitute our greatest strengths as a Nation.

More and more I perceive that true security — like happiness? — is most likely to be achieved as the result of effort primarily focused elsewhere. Viktor Frankl wrote, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

There are interesting lacunae in the Secretary’s speech, especially interesting for a lawyer with a reputation for detail.  It goes beyond what the Secretary actually says, but in those pregnant spaces I hear something similar to, “Security cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it does so mostly as the side effect of a peoples’ dedication to a cause greater than their own safety.”

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2015 @ 7:20 am

Thanks Phil! And a two hour special last night on PBS on Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson [father of the science of sociobiology] focused on humans as the only primate member of a group of 16 units of the animal world that survive as social groups–ants and bees e.g.!

But I would argue that not just biology but the viewpoints of Hobbes vis a vis Locke might well be updated.


Clearly Western Civilization is now in a new AGE OF RELIGION IMO. Perhaps driven by the NUCLEAR AGE since 1945 will humanity be saved or destroyed by the NUCLEAR PRIESTHOOD.

Almost un-noticed this Administration wants to spend a Trillion over the next few years to update the bomb complex. And we are destroying a new generation of “small” nukes in NATO.

Many want to view the USA as the EXCEPTIONAL NATIONAL and savior of Western Civilzation even as Western Religions help destroy the NATION-STATE SYSTEM.

We continue to pour oil down each others throats to promote conversion to our belief systems.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

October 1, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

Sorry, Phil, but I have little time or respect for Jeh Johnson. I not only found his speech anything but revelatory (isn’t the security vs liberty debate what everyone has been discussing for quite awhile now), but also just profoundly meaningless if not hypocritical within our current hyper-mass-surveillance context.

Then there was his fawning over 2 of the least impressive men in 20th century western history, that I actually found mildly nauseating. Truman could not be more directly responsible for the intentional mass murder of well over 250,000 innocent men, women and children (and that was just immediate deaths), even though we now know that he knew full well that it was in no way necessary, and that the Japanese were about to surrender. Now that’s a lovely guy. Then there’s Churchill – I mean, where does one begin. Suffice it to say his politics and most policy positions were either socially atrocious, or more often than not, just deeply wrong, ie., incompetent. Reading Johnson’s speech, as you suggested we do, was sad, but very familiar territory. Men are amazingly able to both overlook and normalize each other’s atrocious behavior, usually by simply pretending like it never happened. Johnson’s speech was just one more amongst a jillion good examples of this elevation and normalization of the alternately awful and incompetent. And news flash – there isn’t nearly the sweeping consensus about the greatness of either men amongst the vast majority. Once again, an overwhelmingly minority and painfully male perspective gets universalized if not canonized into something much more than it is – or certainly deserves to be. (Don’t get me started on the naming of the “j Edgar Hoover” building, etc. – talk about mass, collective denial…)

But more important, and disturbing, has been his clear stance and boldly illegal as well as inhumane policy prescriptions for dealing with the refugee crisis that amassed itself at our southern border over the last couple of years. He has had to be dragged kicking and screaming every step of the way, eventually by the courts themselves, to handle it with even the most minimum of decency and civility, never mind legality.

Quoting from a NYTImes article earlier this year:

From the beginning, officials were clear that the purpose of the new facility in Artesia was not so much to review asylum petitions as to process deportation orders. “We have already added resources to expedite the removal, without a hearing before an immigration judge, of adults who come from these three countries without children,” the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, told a Senate committee in July. “Then there are adults who brought their children with them. Again, our message to this group is simple: We will send you back.” Elected officials in Artesia say that Johnson made a similar pledge during a visit to the detention camp in July. “He said, ‘As soon as we get them, we’ll ship them back,’?” a city councilor from Artesia named Jose Luis Aguilar recalled. The mayor of the city, Phillip Burch, added, “His comment to us was that this would be a ‘rapid deportation process.’ Those were his exact words.”

Never mind that the federal government is required by law to hear and assess each individual’s petition for asylum, etc. I really do think Johnson should consider moving to Hungary once he finishes his tenure at DHS. I would think he’d feel right at home, I really do. He seems to have no problem whatsoever completely ignoring the sum total of refugee law, domestic and international, in the direct face of mass human desperation and suffering. What a guy…

Comment by Vicki Campbell

October 1, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

Here’s a link to the NYTimes article, which I think is considerably more worth reading, and contains considerably more values, ideas and behavior on the part of others that is worth heralding than anything contained in Johnson’s speech, or his actions as head of DHS:


Comment by Vicki Campbell

October 1, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

…. and all of which is to say that Johnson may well be following in his grandfather’s footsteps soon enough…..

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

Line drawing in a democracy [republic] tough for those governing to do. But absolute failures to draw lines between safety/security and freedom/liberty inexcusable.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 1, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

Vicki — And all of which makes me wonder if he is troubled about the same possibility.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

October 1, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

Phil, I actually think you make a good point, when combined with your other astute observation that his parable about his grandfather was a bit odd for someone in his position to be saying, which I think it was too. (I’m just so annoyed with the man I really don’t care.) So he may well be troubled, but I’m not sure I’m willing to give him much credit for being so – at least not consciously. Unconsciously maybe, but……

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 2, 2015 @ 7:02 am

Vicki–It is a truism — even a cliche — to observe that the exercise of power is treacherous. The supposed power to do good is often frustrated (frustrating) and can back-fire in a whole host of unexpected ways.

Which for me is further evidence of the paradox of power and the often closely related conceit of security. Yesterday I was in a room where everyone else was fighting over which external threat deserves our priority (wack-a-mole anyone?). I suggested, but failed to persuade, that regardless of externalities, there are some shared vulnerabilities to be addressed.

It sometimes seems to me that in our culture’s increasing(?) tendency to be suspicious of the other, we are unwilling (or just out of time and energy) to engage in constructive self-examination. And maybe that is why I was so intrigued with the Secretary’s comments; because for all the failures you outlined, I perceived an unusually public attempt at collective and even personal self-examination.

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