Captain America versus Nick Fury, or Liberty versus Security

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest film in Marvel’s Avengers-related series, finds the Captain at odds with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury over the question of global intelligence.

Fury’s experience with the death and destruction visited upon the world in warfare leads him to support intelligence gathering by S.H.I.E.L.D. that intrudes on privacy to an unprecedented extent and uses threat analysis and weapons that will neutralize enemies preemptively. Like Minority Report’s “pre-crime” law enforcement division, it would stop would-be attackers before they act against innocents and America, saving untold lives.

The Captain vehemently disagrees with this development. The battles he fought were to protect the liberties of Americans, not to allow America to become like her enemies. Things have already gone too far. As he said in The Avengers, “I wake up, they say we won. They didn’t say what we lost.” The film decidedly sides with the Captain over Fury on this question.

The tension between Fury and Captain Rogers is the tension between the Real and the Ideal, between what is and what should be. It is a fundamental debate from Aristotle and Plato on down to us, to simplify the philosophies of the two men.

To the fair-minded observer, both positions have their benefits and neither can be discarded. Conservatives are nothing if not intent upon dealing with human nature and the world as it is: fallen and imperfect. We wish to understand the limitations of human beings, their shortcomings, and not to succumb to the allure of unrealistic utopias. Thomas Sowell has referred to this as the “tragic” or “constrained” worldview. It recognizes the danger of evil people in the world and the need to sometimes get our hands dirty to prevent the evil they would do.

On the other hand, without the Ideal, we would not have a conception of justice to fight for. We would not have worked to expand liberties and protect property, nor striven to become the moral and religious people necessary to maintain freedom and prosperity. We certainly would not have fought a war against the most powerful empire in the world to preserve those things. In short, without the centuries-long reach for the Ideal, America would not exist.

Ultimately, it is neither the world as it is nor the world as it should be that should rule our worldviews unchecked. Specifically, the question is not whether liberty or security is superior, but how to maximize both in a well-constituted government. Put another way, the question is how to build an apparatus that will secure liberty, not trample it.

In response to the post-9/11 national security reforms that they believe go too far, critics offer Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” as though Franklin intended by it that any concession of liberty for security means that one doesn’t deserve either.

This is not actually what Franklin meant in context. Further, neither he nor most of the American founders would accept today’s understanding of his quote. They prescribed to the classical republican (not the party) understanding of human nature and government: all human beings were completely free in nature apart from government. However, they could not defend their rights alone. They needed to organize into a society with a government, conceding some of their rights and liberties to empower government to protect their rights and liberties as a whole. Western Europeans and Americans following Hobbes and Locke believed that one did indeed give up some liberty to gain some security. The question was how to maximize both. That was the search for the right constitution of government.

Again, it is, in reality, a trade off, which requires us to understand the role of government in a world of fallen human beings – its own raison d’être is also the reason it must be limited and checked – and the power of liberty in human affairs.

Captain America and NSA critics (of which I am one) may be correct that the balance has tipped too far in favor of security and away from liberty. Barack Obama, the purported “liberal,” has proven himself to be even more comfortable with expansive, intrusive security measures than the predecessor he criticized. Perhaps now is the ideal time to reclaim liberalism from the progressive statists, as Neal Dewing has written.

It is important to realize, though, that the question of the correct implementation of security and protection of liberty is a matter of context. It is not a question answered once and for all, but an eternal debate and conversation, which, in America, occurs within the confines of the Constitution.

To avoid a descent into anarchy or tyranny – two sides of the same coin – is the reason why we must recognize the importance of liberty and security in tandem, rather than to reduce the wisdom of our forefathers to platitudes. We must recognize the validity of the points Nick Fury and Captain America make, without accepting either as the final, unquestioned word on security policy.