In September 2009, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya wanted to move into the home
next to mine. He owned a beautiful estate, ostensibly for the use of the Libyan
ambassador and his family. Gaddafi, who was planning to address the United
Nations at that time, had plans to pitch a Beduin-style tent right outside my
window, in a New Jersey suburb with a large Jewish population.
of dollars were poured into the project of renovation for the home, as befitting
a dictator who brazenly robbed his nation to support his extravagance.
organized a public rally on my front porch with Governor John Corzine, Senator
Frank Lautenberg of blessed memory, and Congressman Steve Rothman. We also
launched a wide media campaign against Gaddafi, publicly condemning his brutal
reign and support of global terrorism. Amid the pressure, Gaddafi eventually
canceled his plans to move in and opted to stay in Manhattan instead.
the time, many of my friends warned me that criticizing Gaddafi would place me
under fierce Libyan surveillance from within the compound next door. Surely,
they said, in anticipation of Gaddafi’s arrival, his agents were installing
advanced surveillance devices that would enable them to hear and see everything
going on in my house. I worried that every time I took a shower, I’d have to
wear a lead bathing suit, that I would need to start wearing full body armor to
deflect the constant prying xrays.
And, since the Libyan security
apparatus could probably read thoughts, I’d have to start sporting a tin
At our public rally against Gaddafi’s projected move, my friend
Peter Noel joked that I best never scratch my nether regions lest it make news
headlines in Libya. So I know what it’s like to be afraid of the watchful eye of
my enemies, whether the threat is real or perceived.
But never did I
imagine that my own government would be spying on me to the extent that has now
been revealed. It seems that Verizon, Google, Apple and many other companies
have been turning over phone and Internet logs and metadata on millions of
Americans to the National Security Agency. It’s already surfaced that the NSA
and the FBI are mining data and extracting info that enables analysts to track a
person’s movements and interactions over time.
We’re all familiar with
both sides of the argument by now: if we don’t want another 9/11-style attack,
potential terrorists need to be monitored in ways that can’t be detected. On the
other hand, the central reason fueling violence and terrorism against America is
What’s the point of defending what we call “our” way of life
if it’s only moving steadily towards “their” way of life in which a kind of “Big
Brother” controls all aspects of society? German psychologist Erich Fromm in
Escape from Freedom tells us that the notion that everyone wants to be free is
an illusion. Look throughout human history and you’ll find that people will
reliably give away their freedoms because too much choice can be paralyzing and
frightening. Furthermore, freedom is perceived as a gateway to corruption;
morality can only exist through oppression because if people are permitted to
act however they want, they’ll never choose to act righteously.
the approach of religious extremism in general and modern Islamic fundamentalism
in particular. They argue that freedom yields corruption and propose total
societal regulation as the solution. The best modern example is Iran, where
morality comes from a Revolutionary Guards rifle butt.
A popular line of
defense of the NSA surveillance, offered by some politicians and laypeople, is
that “if you have nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear.” Alas, the profound
moral conundrum: should our safety be guarded by fear at the expense of our free
will? Say, for example, a husband or wife is unfaithful to their spouse, but
will refrain from immoral behavior if they think someone might catch them, as in
theocracies like Iran. Although they can now be trusted to honor their marital
fidelity – due to their fear of surveillance – they’re not really more moral,
and neither is their relationship more passionate, more romantic, or more
They’re simply afraid of the consequences of their
Marriages should be safeguarded by love, not by
Commitment should be internalized and not maintained through fear
Fear of punishment may have its role in behavioral
motivation for children as they mature but, as I wrote extensively in my book,
Face your Fear, adults must learn to conquer fear. Given the gift of free will,
we are meant to harmonize our moral center. This is what Western society is
based on – the Jewish idea of divinely ordained freedom of
There’s a reason God is invisible: He does not wish to be
overbearing. He’s meant to be the voice of conscience, but not a constant threat
of being struck by a bolt of lightning.
Fear, a hysterical response to an
imagined threat, is a degrading emotion and leads to paranoia. The healthy
alternative is caution, a calculated response to a real and present danger.
Whereas fear is debilitating, caution gives us the wherewithal to be proactive
and vigorous in the face of challenge.
That’s the difference in
perspective between terrorist fundamentalists and us. We believe that people
have a desire to be good and can be inspired to make moral decisions on their
own, whereas they believe that people are inherently corrupt and it can only be
corrected through religious coercion.
Western democracies should not be
places of fear. We need to find a balance: look for terrorists, employ
surveillance where there’s an absolute need. But stop believing that the
American population in general needs to be followed and stalked.
wanted humans to feel surveilled He would have deployed an army of visible
angels. The fact that he didn’t means He wished for each of us to have freedom
The author is founder of This World: The Values Network, which
is now launching the American Institute of Jewish values to promote universal
Jewish teachings in the American media. He has recently published The Fed-Up Man
of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.
him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.