Safety First?

Safety first, but not safety only.

Nobody wants to advocate for insecurity, but “safety at any cost” undermines a free society. Benjamin Franklin said it first: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

A single-minded devotion to safety and security is making the rounds these days. We’ve seen it recently in the news at all levels: national, state, and local.

President George W. Bush, Oregon Department of Transportation Regional Spokesperson Joe Harwood, and Cottage Grove City Manager Richard Meyers have each claimed recently that safety is their sole concern.

President Bush has been giving interviews recently, claiming his greatest accomplishment has been keeping us safe from another terrorist attack for the last seven years. That’s an odd way of admitting that it was on his watch that America suffered its greatest attack since Pearl Harbor, and that he had been warned it was coming in his security briefings but ignored those warnings. Never mind the mastermind behind the attack is still at large after a trillion dollars has been spent in our military response. Or that Al Queda has been attracting new recruits more aggressively than the United States Army, and at much lower costs.

The president’s point is that we haven’t been hit lately, and even if the bruises are slow in healing, he deserves credit that we haven’t been hit again, but we’d better be careful or we might.

We know that people have been tortured at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and in other countries by way of extraordinary rendition. We know that our own government has spied on us, gathered our phone data, and traced what books we check out of our libraries. That’s what we know. How much more has been done in our name that we haven’t learned of yet.

Schoolchildren touring Washington D.C. now learn more about barricades and metal detectors than history and statesmanship. But these are dangerous days, we’re told. Protection may not be pretty, but it is required.

So says Oregon Department of Transportation. Poor, misunderstood ODOT. They build a beautiful pedestrian and bike bridge that sweeps over Interstate 5, connecting the Ferry Street Bridge neighborhoods to the Gateway shopping district, but do residents and design professionals thank them? No, they complain that the beauty is marred by road signs installed on the bridge, instructing motorists to go straight.

“We build our structures to be safe and solid,” Harwood said. “If we can make them pretty as well, all the better. But safety will always trump aesthetics.” ODOT insists its hands are tied, because the rules require signs in certain places for certain purposes. Local architect Otto Poticha is not convinced. “They make the rules,” Poticha points out, “How can they tie their own hands? To me, it’s like abusing yourself.”

Will the smallest measure of safety always trump even the greatest measure of aesthetics? Does the civic pride that comes from the beauty of a bridge count for nothing at all?

Social order rests on that civic pride. Schoolchildren who learn to fear their government instead of learning how it works will have to learn later why and how to be good citizens. Motorists who see government offering nothing but utility will question every expenditure using that same standard. Government can’t make us care about one another, but it can avoid making that more difficult.

Cottage Grove recently has enacted a law that forbids panhandling at stoplights. You can see what’s coming.

“We’re not saying we don’t want panhandlers. We’re saying this is a safety risk,” Meyers said. “It’s a traffic violation, and it applies to the driver as well as the pedestrian. We’re not just going to go after the homeless; we’re also going after the people who create the hazard by passing stuff to them.”

Caring for other people can be hazardous. Beauty over a roadway can be a distraction that can become a danger. A government that espouses freedom for its people can become a target for those who fear or envy that freedom.

Those risks are real and immutable. How we respond to them is all we can really control.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs here.