Cook On Concord: Young people struggle with age-old issues

Once President Bush declared our battle against terrorists who would harm America as the “War on Terror,” the issue of how to balance security and protect individual rights – already in constant tension — was cast in a different light. The presidential candidates visiting New Hampshire alternate between addressing and avoiding the issue, since it is far from simple.

Recently, I was invited to address the 9th and 10th grade students at Tilton School, a wonderful private secondary school in Tilton, where it has been educating young people for well over a century. Jim Clements, the head of school, runs a dynamic institution with recently completed facilities that are impressive and offer a wonderful opportunity to those young people who are lucky enough to attend.

At the session, students were challenged to consider the role of government and limitation of rights. The context was in their reading of “Fahrenheit 451,” the Ray Bradbury novel about a society in which books are burned so ideas can be suppressed. The discussion went on from there.

Presenting a number of quotations for their consideration, it became obvious that the young people were as divided as others are in debating the proper balance between individual rights and protection of society.

In chronological order, the quotations presented to the students and worthy of contemplation were as follows:

Jesus said in the New Testament, in another context, “What profits it a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul.”

This was presented to the students as a question about whether it is worth throwing out the rights that make us a free society in order to protect that society and, moreover, whether taking rights from a minority group to protect “our” majority group is the beginning of a slippery slope, or a necessary step — especially when the minority is made up of foreigners accused of wanting to harm us.

The second quote, from James Madison, on the use of war to increase executive power to the exclusion of rights: “Perhaps it is a universal truth that loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad. Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it compromises and develops the germ of every other. War is, in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”

Especially after viewing Ken Burns’ “The War” and its references to the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II, this quote struck home and caused the students to debate vigorously.

Third, and in reference to the taking of rights away from others, especially in wartime, was a quote from Justice Robert H. Jackson. He wrote this in the case, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett in 1943, a case in which the right of Jehovah’s Witness students not to salute the flag because they believed it to be a violation of the First Commandment. Justice Jackson said, “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

The students then considered various constitutional provisions in the Bill of Rights and responded variously to the question of whether they thought those provisions would pass now if they were not already in the Constitution, given the debate about the need for protection, safety and “homeland security.”

Finally, the students considered circumstances under which rights can be limited, using themselves as examples. Quickly, they pointed out that they did not have the right to drive, drink, vote or control their own schedules as students in a private school. This led to contemplation of how rights may evolve. That discussion led, interestingly, to a discussion of whether the death penalty, taking away the ultimate life right, should be imposed by the state or not.

Among the most provocative statements from the students was to this effect: “I think it is moral and OK to suppress the rights of one person if it saves the lives of 100, even if the one is only deemed dangerous and hasn’t done anything yet.”

As with the rest of us, the students differed on this, and watching their vigorous debate continue as they went out into the night was encouraging.

It seems there is nothing new. It is healthy for a free society that the debate continues.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.