Saturday, April 26, 2014

On Captain America: The Winter Soldier.... Liberty versus Security

The Winter Soldier is not just an entertaining film. It is a work of art. Like the best works of art, it provokes intellectually or emotionally; it turns the lens of the camera upon us and asks questions of things that lie beneath the surface. This film's theme might be summarized by Benjamin Franklin's adage (in one particular formulation) "If we restrict liberty to attain security we will lose them both."

During the past several Presidential administrations, the reach of the Federal Government to "attain security"--whether physical, economic, or health--for American citizens (and many non-citizens as well) has increasingly restricted liberty. Just a few examples will suffice: drone strikes on American citizens alleged to be part of terror operations abroad, NSA collection of American citizens' data without individual suspicion or warrant, mandatory payment of Social Security and Medicare taxes into a bankrupt system, mandatory acquisition of government-restricted health insurance, and the militarization of local police forces with surplus military equipment.

The film uses a plot point that the chaos in the world is caused by a villainous organization so as to increase the demand of the people for increased security even at the expense of their own liberty. The heroes learn of this and reinforce their own instincts to preserve liberty, even at the loss of an otherwise logical plan to increase the security of all the people of the world. Would you be willing to exterminate 20 million bad (or potentially bad) people in order to safeguard 7 billion other people, as the film's villains argue? What if it was just a few thousand bad or potentially bad people, in order to safeguard 350 million?

The art of the film is in the asking of its audience to consider this question carefully. The goal of the villains is portrayed as reasonable, though resorting to violence is their general means. We might be tempted to agree with the goal and to support those who would lead us to accomplish it, no matter the means. Yet the producer asks us to consider also the choice of the hero, which is not antithetical to the villains' goal, merely to the means employed. The hero accepts one human imperfection (individual villainy) over another (government villainy). Interestingly, he is given the opportunity to appeal directly to individuals within the government, who then have the chance to make a more informed choice.

If The Winter Soldier makes you think about what our government is doing, and what it should be doing, then it is successful no matter how you side on the issue. This film strongly suggests that you come down on the side of liberty, but leaves open the question of how to best balance liberty and security. Ultimately, it is the conversation to answer that question that we must have, and which the film provokes.

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