In the opening pages of Ray Bradbury’s famous novel Fahrenheit 451, protagonist Guy Montag asks: Wasn’t there a time when firemen used to put out fires? They laugh at him, rebuke him and say: Everybody knows firemen start fires.
Montag knew this. Montag’s father and his grandfather had been firemen. It had been his duty for many years to start fires. He knew it was his duty to burn books, but this day would be different.
Montag arrived on the scene to do his job but found a woman who wouldn’t leave. He complained that she had all of her books but still wouldn’t leave. Undeterred, Montag proceeds with the other firemen to douse her books—and her—with kerosene. The woman shouts out and goads them. She is indignant that they would touch her books at all, and she still wouldn’t leave. She says to them: “Play the man, Master Ridley; today we will light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, that it won’t be forgotten.”
They keep dousing her with kerosene and she says it again: “Play the man, Master Ridley. Today we will light such a candle.”
In the book, the reference is lost on the firemen who simply continue to do their job.
The reference is to 16th century figure Hugh Latimer, who literally became a human candle. He was burned at the stake in 1555 for heresy—opposing the state religion. He wanted to promote the idea that the Bible should be translated into English, which the state forbade.
In America today, we’re not yet burning people at the stake, fortunately. Nor are we burning books. But your government is interested in what books you read. They’re interested in what you say in your phone calls. They’re interested in what you write in your emails.
As we all now know from the National Security Agency (NSA) revelations last summer, such government surveillance of citizens has been going on for a while now.
In the Summer of 2012, I asked for a report on this subject and was given a classified briefing. I wanted to know to what extent your privacy was being invaded. To what extent government was reading your emails, listening to your phone conversations without a judge’s warrant.
At the time, I couldn’t tell you the answer because it was classified. What I could say though, is that if the government says it is a few hundred incidents, it’s actually closer to a gazillion incidents.
A gazillion is a fictitious number. But it’s a very large number, and one that is closer to the actual number of the communications that are being looked at by the federal government on a daily, hourly, or even minute-to-minute basis.
We have been too lax in giving up our privacy. We are trading our liberty for some sort of sense of ostensible security. Look at how we travel now, the personal privacy and dignity we’ve lost, something the TSA might have reminded some Americans over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman has asked, “The next time airport security tells you to put your hands over your head and hold that vulnerable position for seven seconds, ask yourself: Is this the posture of a free man?”
When we give up our dignity and basic freedoms that we’ve always enjoyed as Americans, we give the terrorists a victory they most certainly don’t deserve. We lose something too important to who we are as a people.
Our liberties are slipping away from us. When Hugh Latimer said, let this be an episode that will not soon be forgotten—he became a human candle against tyranny and intolerance.
Americans still have a torch that’s burning. The liberty torch is burning, figuratively or otherwise, in New York Harbor. We cannot continue to trade our freedoms for a false security.
We can never let that flame of liberty go out.