At the start of their careers as educators, my daughter Noya Boton and a colleague took a group of young schoolchildren on a trip near the French Hill neighborhood in Jerusalem. She was bringing up the rear when she spotted a Mercedes driven by a group of Palestinians approaching from around the bend. The car quickly and menacingly began circling around the group, seemingly threatening to run her over. My daughter rounded up the children -- Jews and Palestinians alike -- and ran toward a soldier stationed nearby. The car drove off.
In an article published in Haaretz 22 years ago, I wrote that I thought the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) should use "moderate physical pressure" to capture the terrorist gang. Those were the same words used by the commission headed by Judge Moshe Landau that was formed by the government in 1987 to investigate the Shin Bet's methods following a scandal over the deaths of Palestinian prisoners in custody.
Uri Avnery, the head of left-wing organization Gush Shalom and the former owner of the now out-of-print "Haolam Hazeh" weekly magazine, responded to the commission, saying that torture should never be allowed, under any circumstance, even if avoiding such measures could end up costing lives.
The issue of defending civil liberties at a human cost lays the foundation for the privacy-versus-security debate that swept the United States and Great Britain this past week.
Separate reports revealed last week -- as if out of nowhere -- that U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies (along with the agencies of other nations) have been tracking millions of telephone calls and online communications. The agencies reportedly possess encrypted software based on millions of passwords, allowing them to trace terrorist plots developing from within the world of radical Islamic anarchy. This is how U.S. President Barack Obama's administration -- even more than his predecessor's government -- became a regime that invades the privacy of millions of its citizens. Americans responded in an uproar. It's not hard to guess the remonstrance that George W. Bush's Republican administration would have met had it been found to have been doing the same thing.
I trust Obama. I trust that his government would not eavesdrop on its citizens or exploit their privacy. Still, accidents are always possible. Commercial interests or extortionists could always crack the national database with the intention of harassing or embarrassing individuals.
We've heard the debate for years now. It recurs in different forms all the time. Do we want a biometric database, or not? Should we take fingerprints from every citizen and tourist, or not? Such issues, which are now ever so prevalent, are continually recycled and deal primarily with the cost of defending ourselves against different terrorist threats.
No doubt, allowing even the most liberal, democratic government to penetrate a person's most personal sphere puts human rights and civil liberties at risk. Even the most benign regime could end up behaving maliciously. Certainly, wrongdoers are out there who could seize the information that intelligence agencies have gathered.
On the other hand, there is a different breed of evil, satanic and murderous wrongdoers on every corner. How is Jerusalem supposed to protect itself? How can New York fortify its skyscrapers, or London keep its soldiers safe from being beheaded in broad daylight in the middle of the city? Such circumstances set the precedent for waiving an individual's right to full privacy.
There's a choice, and everyone needs to decide what's important, why, and what the limits are. The exchange rate isn't free: The more security one has, the less individual freedom one enjoys -- that's the formula. Conversely, the more individual freedom one has, the less security. Any solution to this equation is reasonable. Any choice is logical. I'm going to go ahead and give a credit line to democratic regimes. I prefer security over individual freedom.