Should we risk our safety to help innocent people? Matthew Beard explores the relationship between border security and community values. When the price of our safety is other people’s wellbeing, what should we do?
There is a common theme to discussions of national security, refugees and the role of government. Consider the Syrian ‘migrant crisis’ or recent 'Muslim ban' in the United States. Supporters argue the risk of a terrorist posing as a refugee and carrying out a deadly attack justify strong border policies.
Beneath the surface of these arguments lies a principle that has gone more or less unscrutinised. The common claim is that governments’ most important and deepest obligation is to keep its citizens safe.
You can trace this idea at least as far back as US Congressional Representative John Farnsworth in 1847. He told Congress “The first duty of the Government is to afford protection to its citizens”.
The first duty is a powerful idea. Challenging it calls into question the foundations of Western political thought.
You can still hear echoes of his words today. After announcing his Executive Order, President Trump said something similar. He tweeted, “As your President, I have no higher duty than to protect the lives of the American people”.
Malcolm Turnbull made use of the same thought in a different context. Discussing parole and bail measures for criminals he said, “The primary duty of every government … is to protect the safety of citizens”. You could hear the idea again on Monday's episode of Q&A. Author Daisy Cousens claimed, "countries have a responsibility first and foremost to their own citizens".
This 'first duty' has become a 'sacred cow' in debates around national security. Even critics of current border security policies tend to leave this central idea alone. They’re more likely to debate the necessity or effectiveness of the policies than they are to critique the central premise. For example, philosopher Stephen Coleman writes, "For those of us who live in developed countries the risk of being harmed by a terrorist attack is almost vanishingly small”.
There is no question in Coleman's writing of whether the first duty is valid. Instead, he questions whether strong counter-terror measures help to keep us safe, given the low probability of an attack. The first duty to provide security remains intact.
If the state can't guarantee its people’s safety the entire social contract breaks down. Our community as we know it ceases to exist.
This isn't surprising. The first duty is a powerful idea. Challenging it calls into question the foundations of Western political thought.
People like Thomas Hobbes and Jacques Rousseau believed citizens trade some of their freedom in exchange for safety. This contract is the foundation of the modern state. If the state can't guarantee its people’s safety the entire social contract breaks down. Our community as we know it ceases to exist.
This gives a strong case for why governments should prioritise their citizens' safety. Plus, it's citizens who fund the government programs and contribute to the life of the community. Putting their needs second to those of someone else might seem unfair. Especially when prioritising others might put them in harm's way by letting a terrorist within our borders.
How much protection should government give citizens? Is any threat enough to justify prioritising ‘us’ over ‘them’?
Of course governments should work to keep their people safe. If a government knew with certainty an attack was going to happen there would be no question of what to do. The problem is when we admit large numbers of people – refugees, migrants or whoever – there is always a chance some of them will be planning harm against us. The same is true for our own citizens. The only way to guarantee our protection is by completely closing our borders.
It's not always possible to thwart a threat without ethical tension. Civil liberties may be wound back, human dignities disrespected. Tighter border security can seriously impact people genuinely in need of refugee protection. It might leave them stranded abroad, kept in a camp for an indefinite period of time or separate a family.
When thinking about the first duty in this context, the question changes a little. How much protection should government give citizens? Is the mere possibility of an attack enough to justify prioritising ‘us’ over ‘them’?
No government treats its duty to protect citizens as absolute. There are objectively high risk things governments don’t issue blanket bans on. They don't protect us from the risk of road deaths by banning cars or setting speed limits so low we would survive any collision. The health of smokers would be better protected by outlawing tobacco altogether but the government hasn’t done so.
Although they take security measures to protect us from the risks of domestic terrorism, we can imagine ways they could do more. If police were given the power to search homes at random, this might help discover new threats and deter others from trying to attack us. Few would support these measures though, because we understand there are reasonable limits to what should be done to protect us.
Even if some people were comfortable with measures like these, many people would see them as disproportionate and unjust. They represent imbalanced trade-offs between the kind of community we want to live in and our desire for security.
This suggests we don’t desire safety at any price. We are willing to trade some risks in exchange for having the kind of political community we want to have.
It’s useful to distinguish between ‘safety from’ and ‘safety for’. Safety from is basic security. It protects us from harm and ensures we’ll get through the day without being attacked by something hard and pointy. Safety for explains why we would want to survive the day. Rather than asking, “What are you keeping us safe from” it asks, “Why are you keeping us safe? What makes our community worth defending?”
There’s a clear answer. By providing security, the state enables us to trust our fellow citizens. Instead of seeing them as potential threats, trust enables us to collaborate with them in good faith. From there, we can build a community where we all flourish.
In The Four Loves, CS Lewis writes, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value. Rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” By analogy, our collective vision for a flourishing community gives value to security.
Today, we could consider security as protecting the type of community we want to have, not the individual lives and property within it.
It's also what makes it unlikely we would accept protections that undermined the common good.
This suggests we’ve moved beyond the kind of security captured by the social contract thinkers. Most communities think of security as being about more than protection from their neighbours.
Today, we could consider security as protecting the type of community we want to have, not the individual lives and property within it. Why else would we accept domestic risks the government could protect us from if we let them?
Of course, you could accept all this and still support the border security measures causing such controversy. After all, we only need to trust our fellow citizens to build a community where we can all flourish. We might not need to extend our common values to those across our shores.
There is nothing wrong with taking measures to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our nation from harm.
That may be true. Even if it is, there is a deeper question that still needs an answer. If security intends to protect the kind of community we wish to create, our security policy should reflect our communal values. After all, they are a reflection of who we are as a group. Is our approach to safety consistent with who we want to be?
The plaque on the Statue of Liberty reads:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
If Americans still imagine themselves as defined by the values captured here, they might need to consider what price they’re willing to pay to uphold them.
Australians face a similar moment of reflection. Newspoll suggests 44 percent of Australians support Trump-like measures in Australia, with 45 percent opposed. The Australian national anthem says, “For those who’ve come across the sea we’ve boundless plains to share”. If we want those words to reflect our communal identity, we need to consider what it means for our common identity if we put ourselves first. This is especially important when our protection has implications for vulnerable, desperate people we would be ready to help if they were already part of our community.
It's worth emphasising: there is nothing wrong with taking measures to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our nation from harm. Many philosophers believe we have special duties to our family and community that we don’t have to strangers.
The decisions we make about our safety make a statement about the type of community we are and aspire to be. It's worth making sure that statement is one we're proud of.
The threat of terrorism is real. Whether the odds are high or low, the notion of a malicious force planning to murder us is more disconcerting than the idea of dying in a car accident.
All the same, we should be aware there is a limit to what we're willing to trade for security. Given this, it's worth asking what is fair to impose on other people. We know there are civil liberties, values and principles we’re unwilling to trade for our security.
We don’t allow our homes to be ‘open for inspection’ by the police or keep people from certain racial or religious backgrounds isolated from the rest of the community. Even if measures like these might keep us safe, they would diminish our ability to flourish as individuals in a community. However, one interpretation of current attitudes towards immigration would suggest we are willing to impose those same costs on others.
Any person presents a potential risk to our safety. We can’t know what’s in their mind and we can’t control their actions. But defending ourselves from foreign terrorists intending us harm has ethical consequences too.
Sweeping security measures can have negative effects on innocent people. The decisions we make about our safety make a statement about the type of community we are and aspire to be. It's worth making sure that statement is one we're proud of.
Dr Matthew Beard is an Ethicist and Writer at The Ethics Centre.
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Header image credit: The Huffington Post