Tallinn experienced a security scare last week as an explosives carrying gunman threatened the staff of the Estonian Ministry of Defense. With characteristic resolute competence, Estonian security forces ended the threat by shooting the gunman while ensuring that no innocent life was lost. Other than the press, few people outside the capital of this peaceful and law abiding country were even aware of the dramatic and deadly event in the Ministry. That’s both good, but also something to think about. My family, my colleagues in our Embassy, and I are certainly enjoying the hospitality, the beauty, and the relative safety of this country. I can’t imagine that Estonians loose a lot of sleep over the safety of their cities, towns and villages, or their homes and their families. They have little reason to. But as last week’s incident demonstrated, there is no such thing as “it can’t happen here.”
In America and for Americans, as well as for many others, tragically, it has happened. Not all that long ago, we would never have contemplated taking of our shoes off in an airport or walking through metal detectors to visit a museum. Visiting an American Embassy was relatively easy not that long ago and and streets around our diplomatic missions were not closed off. Tragic experience has changed all that. We have allowed our lives to become far more complicated in exchange for greater security, not because we want to, but because we have to. Over the years we have learned to make security precautions less intrusive and more rational. We have also become more security conscious without being security obsessed. In the end, we are more secure in a more dangerous world.
The debate over how much security is enough and how much is excessive will never end in free and freedom-loving societies. Especially when we are confronted with threats from within, rather than with outside agression, we are loath to relinguish yet another slice of physical and psychological freedom in exchange for greater protection. We resent being shaken in the belief that our best protection are the just and democratic societies we have built. However unsettling, the threats we face only reaffirm our most basic principles of personal liberty. Gritting our teeth, we accept that total security is illusory and we adopt responsible management of risks to our safety. Depending on individual national experiences, democracies pass through these resentment and realization phases at their own pace — but inevitably arrive at similar conclusions.