The Contract for our Security

A look back at our freedoms post 9/11

September 11, 2011: A day that changed this nation forever. America woke up that day to see a loss of life and destruction of property on its own soil unlike any other. The powerful defenses of the nation had been penetrated by terrorists, and the citizens were shocked about how it had had happened and more importantly could it happen again. In this crisis, policymakers decided to take preventative action by passing the USA Patriot Act. A legislation that allowed the government and its agencies more autonomy in conducting surveillance and investigations of U.S. residents. The goal of this analysis is to look at how this legislation has impacted the social contracts of Americans in the context of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.


Policymakers after 9/11 felt that there was a great need to maintain surveillance over, as NY Times writer Nathan Sales calls them, lone wolves. These were American citizens or residents who had symbiotic ties with terrorists, and had assisted in the development of attacks on our soil. This follows exactly from Hobbes’ belief that natural passions, the lone wolves’ ties, need to be controlled by the “terror of some power”, the Patriot Act. In Leviathan Hobbes also advocates the concept of people giving up their rights of self-governance to an “absolute sovereign.” As we saw in Ben’s portrayal during lecture, this methodology also gives the sovereign the right to make decisions that may be only in his/her interests.

FBI subpoenaed Verizon accounts

In 2010 the Federal Bureau of Investigation subpoenaed the phone records of millions of Verizon customers, using the Patriot Act as legal justification. There is some tension relating this story with Hobbes’ as the United States government does not have an absolute sovereign, but in this case we can say that the FBI and thereby the Executive Branch are pretty close to this role. And so even as many citizens were unhappy, since Hobbes’s sovereign thought it was for the better of the nation the subpoena went through.

John Locke wrote that the goal of citizens uniting into governments is the “preservation of property.” 9/11 was an example of a serious loss of property for many Americans. The impetus of the legislation that followed was to make sure that the citizens’ property was protected. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Anderson writes that since the act was introduced multiple terror plots and terror cells have been bashed, so yes in one view our property is being protected.  Now in Locke’s time property was largely land and wealth, but in a 21st century context we can extend this to intellectual property as well. This is where the controversy rises. Phone records and conversations are part of intellectual property, which is why most citizens called fowl play when they were notified that Verizon was allowing the government to access them.

Furthermore, Locke also believed that commonwealths could act as arbiters of justice in issues of property. This is where another thorn arises. As the video shows, the NSA currently has “special courts” that through a secret and expedited process handle subpoenas. This clouds the integrity of justice in the United States as judicial decisions are no longer made public. So while the intent of the act is in accordance with Locke’s policies many of its functions definitely go against his beliefs.

Rousseau of all our theorists feels the most limited need for government intervention. His ideal contract would be one in which there is protection but the each individual still keeps his/her own freedoms. Yet, even the proponents of the Patriot Act believe that there needs to be some sacrifice of freedoms for the insurance of privacy.But even if we say that Rousseau was probably a bit idealistic about this point, and we assume for a second that the Patriot Act is part of the social contract  it still falls short of another part of Rousseau’s interpretation.

Rousseau believes social contracts cannot be modified.

He writes that even the “least modification renders” social contracts  “vain and ineffectual.” In 2010 Rep. Senenbrenner, the very same many that introduced the Patriot Act to Congress came out and said that the government had gone past the norms of the legislation in practice. So by Rousseau’s metric the government’s actions have effectively broken the social contract.

The times may have changed a lot since these men first introduced their theories, but it is still possible to draw some parallels between their logic and our world today. And the differences in these three opinions are a clear indication of the difficulty in arising to a conclusion regarding the correct balance between freedom and security, if there is one at all.

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5 thoughts on “The Contract for our Security

  1. This is a very interesting and spot on connection of the class material to an extremely relevant yet sometimes underreported event in our nations history. The events of 9/11 yielded two main reactions from the American public. The first was the immediate reaction: fear, sorrow, anger and a uniting drive/resolve for justice to be brought to those who perpetrated the terrible attack. The second reaction was the long term: the government’s realization that they needed to do more to protect the country. They passed the Patriot Act and so we began the trek down the foggy road of personal freedom vs national security. This long term effect of the reaction to 9/11 has created a unsolvable conundrum for the government and public. At what point we must ask ourselves does personal freedom and privacy no longer trump safety and similarly at what point does security no longer trump personal freedoms. The solution is to find the middle ground, but that can only be a viable solution if the pubic can trust the government. The real issue is that people want security but don’t trust the government when they seize phone records, or tap phone lines or monitor internet activity. Everybody is ok when someone else is spied on in the name of national security, but when it happens to them they scream government abuse of power and unconstitutional invasion of privacy. The public needs to place its trust back in the government and believe that the security establishment is trying protect them, not spy on them in order to silence them.

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  2. I find your integration of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau into the discussion of 9/11 and the Patriot Act fascinating. Frankly, I think there are a lot of comparisons to be made between these thinkers’ views on the state of nature and the current war on terror both at home and abroad. 9/11 was so jarring to our country and government that we entered into a kind of state of nature, of total chaos. The extremely controversial Patriot Act perfectly captures the fundamental tension between government involvement for the sake of protection and the idea (as articulated by Rousseau) that government ought to have as minimal a roll as possible.

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  3. Nice post! I liked how you were able to relate such a controversial topic to Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes. Obviously, the debate over national security is quite contentious, and I would agree that the current stance of the US on privacy is for the most part not in accordance with the social contracts of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. However, I also think that the United States is doing what needs to be done– which is something you touched on. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau probably did not predict that we would be in a time of such high technology that would make terrorism easier.

    Furthermore, the terrorists that are out to get the United States cannot be negotiated with– as they want nothing but to harm US citizens. This makes it difficult for those who head the US security– which is why our privacy is impinged upon. As you mentioned, some terrorist activities have been stopped, so it would appear that the efforts to preserve our security through doing things like accessing the data of Verizon Wireless customers aren’t completely bad, but they do violate some social contract ideals. I think you do a good job of making it clear that US’s intent doesn’t appear to be to spy on us just for the purpose of spying– there is an underlying intent to keep American citizens safe and prevent something like 9/11 from happening again.

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  4. I think you did a great job of aligning the three social contracts we have covered to American society and government today. I loved the point you made about how now, instead of just land and wealth, there is much concern about protection of intellectual property. Locke would definitely agree with the need to protect that as well. When the terrorists attacked our soil on 9/11, this was clearly a state of emergency. These conditions called for drastic measures. Not only did we declare war, but we also beefed up our protection policies. However, now I think it may be a good idea to reduce the government involvement and knowledge of our specific intellectual private property. Nice post.

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  5. This is a very good utilization of the social contracts in regards to one of the most traumatic events in American History. In a time of need, the United States did whatever it took to protect its people. But as you state, it clearly violates the personal property and all of the rights that we were granted by the founding fathers and expressed in the social contracts of Locke and Rosseau. However, the underlying question is if it was justified for the United States to break every social contract in this time of chaos and terror. In my opinion, the actions of the government are justified. The United States experienced an act of extreme terrorism and they responded appropriately. In a time of terror, it is reasonable to break the social contracts because the government is simply looking out for the best interests of the population.

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