Persica: Protection and freedom complicated

In 1776, when the American colonists were declaring their independence from the British king, New Orleanians were still in thrall to a Spanish monarch from the Bourbon dynasty.

All those images you’ve seen in the days leading up to today — men in three-cornered hats and such — are kind of alien to the experience of Louisianians. The same is true around Thanksgiving time, when schoolchildren put on poster-board Pilgrim’s hats and crayon-colored Indian headdresses.

The images from the “first Thanksgiving” trotted out every November just don’t seem real, at least not to us.

Some south Louisiana families may find themselves thinking there’s no way that can be a picture of a Thanksgiving dinner if there’s no dirty rice on the table.

Others around here may wonder why the Thanksgiving turkey doesn’t have a duck stuffed inside of it, and a chicken inside the duck.

Symbols are just shortcuts, lacking in complexity. The clip-art images we see this time of year of Paul Revere’s ride, or the Liberty Bell, or some men sitting around a table getting ready to sign a document just don’t get across the idea of just how precious and fragile our freedom is, or how gritty and gruesome the fight to maintain it can be.

Perhaps better symbols of our freedom would be the blood-soaked beaches of Normandy, or some evocation of the heroic souls who died Gettysburg, Pa., or, for that matter, in Philadelphia, Miss.

Defending liberty is hard. And, as recent experiences have shown, it’s complicated.

In 2006, when the New York Times reported on a Bush administration program to monitor banking transactions as part of its anti-terror efforts, the response from conservatives was deafening. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., suggested the newspaper be brought up on charges of treason. Some suggested that the Times had committed the modern-day equivalent of revealing Allied troop movements to the Axis powers during World War II.

But when the National Security Agency program of monitoring Internet traffic and cellphone calls was recently revealed, the reaction was a little different.

For some, the story seemed to fit into a narrative in which President Barack Obama is pictured as a Big Brother-style dictator listening in on everyone’s conversations. Elsewhere, however, in a rare show of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats alike defended the NSA. Even President George W. Bush eventually spoke out in support of the program, which began under his administration.

Possibly the biggest sign as to how complicated this issue is was the fact that while so many people were shocked to find out about the spying — and presumably were thankful to know what their government was doing —– few saw the man who revealed the program, Edward Snowden, and the reporter who broke the story, Glenn Greenwald, as heroes for what they did.

For obvious reasons, I tend to be more sympathetic to the journalist’s case than most people. But I still would like to sit down for a few hours with a panel of experts on national security and civil liberties before coming to my own conclusion as to who are this saga’s heroes and who are its villains.

My guess is that a lot of people would come out of this wearing gray hats, rather than white hats or black hats, once we tallied up all the pros and cons on this issue.

And that’s probably the most realistic and practical conclusion we can hope to reach. As I said, it’s complicated.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.