Keeping the often-conflicting demands of security, privacy, and personal liberty in proper balance is a concern of heightened importance in our post-9/11 society, but it is not a challenge unique to our times.

The bold men who founded the United States knew firsthand the risks of security lapses–how traitors and enemies, foreign and domestic, could threaten and injure our society and its citizens. For Franklin and Jefferson and their revolutionary cohort, an occupying army had just been abroad in the streets and had been billeted in their very houses. Numerous citizens were known to remain loyal to the king. The case for limited freedom couldn’t have been stronger. Yet even in the face of all those clear and present dangers, our founders nonetheless opted for liberty and personal privacy.

What in the world, you might ask, does that have to do with us and our schools? Well, plenty–if you think about the employment tests demanded nowadays by the U.S. Department of Education (ED), a plan to clap student truants into electronic ankle bracelets, the mandate for schoolgirl inoculations against cervical cancer imposed by the governor of Texas, the new law allowing the government to harvest DNA from many of those arrested or detained by a federal agent, or even the ban, proposed recently in New York, on crossing the street while wearing an iPod.

Let’s take a quick look at each of these recent developments:

“ED long has demanded that would-be employees and contractors agree to submit their employment histories and agree to be fingerprinted. But recently, it has been reported, the department has begun asking for access to the medical and financial records of contractors’ employees and even for permission to interview their personal physicians.

“Some county lawmakers in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., want to tackle a growing school truancy problem by backing a bill that could force the worst student offenders to submit to electronic monitoring, such as ankle bracelets.

“Rick Perry, Republican governor of Texas, issued an executive order not long ago requiring all young schoolgirls in the state to be inoculated against a sexually transmitted virus believed to cause cervical cancer. Parents of the girls may prevent the injections by filing an affidavit citing their objections on religious or philosophical grounds. Similar edicts reportedly are pending in as many as 19 additional states.

“The Justice Department has been putting the finishing touches on rules implementing last year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. It permits federal DNA collection from anyone under criminal arrest and also from illegal immigrants detained by authorities. The move will subject hundreds of thousands to a new level of scrutiny by the federal government.

“In the Empire State, under legislation proposed by State Sen. Carl Kruger, D-Brooklyn, pedestrians would be subject to a $100 fine if caught crossing the street while using an iPod, cell phone, or similar device. “If you want to listen to your iPod,” Kruger declared, “sit down and listen to it … but you should not be crossing the streets and endangering yourself and the lives of others.”

Each of these developments on its own might be tolerable, but together they form a trend that seems to be accelerating–from those erstwhile warrantless wiretaps to electronic surveillance of financial transactions. Anyone who has occasion to travel by air, enter a public building, or attend a college basketball game must know we are slowly but surely being acculturated to accepting less freedom.

To some extent, it seems like a reasonable bargain. It’s hard to exercise personal liberty if you’re dead, after all. But like most things in this life, it’s a matter of degree. It’s a question of weighing the clearer danger against the greater good.

Airplanes would be safer if none of their parts were fashioned of flammable materials. Trouble is, asbestos can kill you, as school facility directors well know–and cement airplanes can’t fly.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that people will suffer nearly any injustice as long as it is applied equally to all. Racial profiling is frowned on, but harvesting of DNA by the government might be acceptable–as long as the harvest is evenhandedly implemented. The time has come, I think, to be much more circumspect in our acceptance of impositions on our freedom and personal liberty. We must weigh not just the individual practice at issue, but also the accumulation of these impositions.

Let’s renew our commitment to the teaching of history and civics–especially the writings of our founders and the contents of our precious Bill of Rights. Let’s resolve to be vigilant against injustice no matter how ecumenical.

If we don’t, we could wind up like that famous pot-squatting frog–you know, the one unmindful of the gradually rising temperature of the water all around him. Let’s avoid being oblivious frogs afraid to hop before our goose really is cooked.

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