Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Safety Catch

Each weapon I ever saw had at least one safety device to prevent unintentional discharge. We were always taught to treat each weapon as if it were loaded, even if we had just removed all the ammunition. We were taught to respect weapons for what they were—useful, but very dangerous tools.

In the past ten to fifteen years, we learned to use another dangerous tool—the Internet. However, the Internet has a less obvious safety device than any weapon. The first obvious safety device for any tool should be common sense. However, not everyone has or uses common sense. Obviously that is true of those who use the Internet just as much as it is of those who carry weapons.

Privacy on the Internet is a joke. Nothing that can be heard on a cell phone or seen on the Internet can remain hidden or private. This certain knowledge can be regarded as the warning on the carton of ammunition—potentially dangerous and explosive. User is solely responsible for outcome. Even if posted, this warning probably would be ignored by Internet users just as often as it is ignored by those who load weapons.

Whether it is a princess, an athlete, the son of a college dean, or a politician, what is said or written in private is no longer private when it goes to the Internet.

Words and opinions can be dangerous when used irresponsibly. But which is worse? Is irresponsible use of words any worse than the demands of those who feel they have the right to judge what was supposed to be a private message?

Many companies now control their e-mail systems to prevent unfair business practices or other insider damage control. But when did our high schools and universities begin to practice the same type of control? When young people post foolishness on a social Internet site, the foolishness is their problem—not that of the school. When a college student privately posts critical remarks about his school, does that give the school the right to harass the student?

One step further leads us to public words spoken, written, or posted online: does any government entity have the right to judge, condemn, or coerce a person who is critical of our government or any laws passed by our government? The obvious answer sounds like a safety catch—The Patriot Act. No one wants anarchy in our country or even acts or words to incite rebellion. But the Patriot Act can take away our right to express our honest—even though critical—opinions. Restricting freedom of speech is the same as saying that we are too foolish to be responsible citizens. Yet somehow freedom of speech always seemed like a good idea. Just as competition seems to help markets grow, freedom of speech seems to help us develop ideas and learn more about our fellow man. What happens when we remove the safety catch on democracy?

Perhaps it is true: it is the empty weapon which kills.

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