Saving Fishes

According to recent news reports, the Dutch government is proposing a ban on wearing burquas in public. This follows on the heels of the French government banning head scarves and veils. My fourteen-year-old granddaughter commented, "That's not right. Then they could also force us to wear burquas in public."

As offensive as the Burqua Wall may be, she has a point. How much government do we want in our lives? Reed Hastings, CEO and Founder of Netflix, said recently, "There's almost no chance one of us will invent the next big thing. It's always youth questioning assumptions. They have the courage and willingness to do so - we have mortgages."

What else do we have, besides mortgages? According to Addison Wiggin, co-author of "Empire of Debt", "every passing minute we give away one million dollars more in new purchases to China than we take in making things they want to buy from us. The United States' trade deficit is the biggest in history, at over $600 billion dollars and climbing."

Wiggin tells us that the U.S. economy has only added 62,000 new jobs during the last five years, most of these in the government sector. The private sector has eliminated over 700,000 jobs. Yet from 2001 till now, our working population has swelled by 12.8 million people.

What else has government given us? In 1965 foreigners held 4.7% of Treasury securities. Last year that figure was 42.1%. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Last year the Defense Department spent on average about $6.4 billion USD every month for the Iraq war, about equivalent to the annual gross domestic product of Mozambique".

How long do you think we can continue as a nation spending far more than we bring in? What happens if foreign governments stop buying our debt, let alone if they start selling it? The government tells us that the debt is necessary to finance tax cuts. But those benefits increasingly accrue to the top one tenth of one percent of Americans, while the rest of us struggle with lost jobs, falling real estate values, ballooning mortgages and the alternative minimum tax.

Of course, Vice President Cheney tells us that "deficits don't matter". But that logic falls in the same category as this parable quoted by Amy Tan: "A pious man explained to his followers: 'It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. 'Don't be scared', I tell those fishes. 'I am saving you from drowning'. Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes.'"

More government has given us searches without warrants, eavesdropping on private citizens, an administration that claims the right to withhold information about hundreds of Muslim immigrants detained after 9/11. Even their names aren't released. Aren't they fathers and mothers, daughters and sons? Amendment VI of the Bill of Rights states, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation." Stephen Shapiro, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says, "A government of the people and for the people must be visible to the people".

Why does it matter to you and me if someone's civil liberties are being ignored? Because, as Harry Browne has written, "If an innocent person is convicted, the real criminal will be free to commit more crimes....It's vital that only the guilty be convicted, whether the accused is an American citizen, a green-card resident, or an outright foreigner". One suspect arrested and held incommunicado means any other one, your wife or your son, is a target for similar mistreatment. Nameless prisoners? Undocumented whereabouts? That's been tried, and we all know the outcome. In the case of the United States and Britain, these two countries rank at the bottom of the list in a recent tally by the Economist Intelligence Unit of Democracy.

The administration is asking for secret military tribunals. How then do we know if the person being convicted is really a terrorist? Destroying the foundations of a democracy in order to prevent others from destroying that democracy makes no sense, does it? Browne goes on to say, "It's a shame that schools don't show children why the Bill of Rights is so important. But then, why would government want to teach children that it's important to protect individuals from governments?"

It's not really the burquas and the scarves, is it? Nor is it solely the textile imprisonment of women. Perhaps it's a deep-seated fear of radical Islam and its influence on Western culture. But the cure for that is education and the free flow of ideas, not government dicta. It's not the world that is too much with us, as Wordsworth wrote, but governments that are too much with us. So to young Talya I say, "Keep questioning. Keep demanding answers. And don't let government subject you to tyranny on the excuse of defeating tyranny."

c. Corinne Whitaker 2006

For more attitudes on immigrants, see this Electronic Quill article from 1996: