[Viewpoint] An excessive exercise of liberty

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[Viewpoint] An excessive exercise of liberty

Excess often does more harm than good. This doctrine applies well to politics. Democracy and freedom are wonderful institutions and ideals, but when they become absolute values, they can ruin a state or community.

Ancient Greeks and Romans contemplated which political system best served a strong state. Athens, Greece, is considered to be the birthplace of democracy, but not all ancient Greeks believed democracy to be the ideal political system.

They realized there can’t be a perfect political system, as none is without defects as well as merits. They found out that a democracy governed by the masses can be equally corrupted and distorted into mobocracy, or a tyranny of the majority, Many therefore believed a composite system of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy would be ideal.

A country such as ours, with an inherent hunger for free will after a long history of authoritarian rule, prizes democracy and liberty more than anything else. But a nation must look to other values for its existence and prosperity.

In the economy, a state must consider the value of efficiency to survive in global competition. It must also defend the value of security in order to protect the country from outside hostilities. Not one of these values should be neglected for the viability of a state.

The tragedy of the Cheonan suggests that only one value matters in this society. From the outbursts of opposition lawmakers, we cannot tell which country they really represent. They doubt their own military and advocate for North Korea. They have no respect for military confidentiality or security concerns. Their definition of freedom and democracy is to speak whenever, whatever and however serves their interests.

From the cascade of opinions flooding cyberspace over the cause of the sinking, the country evidently experiences an excess of freedom of expression and thought. Communication adds life to a society, but when overdone, it can divide the country. Newspapers and TV broadcasters fully capitalize on the freedom of press. But freedom does not give them the right to report and broadcast anything that could be of interest.

The press also must think of the interests of the community. It should have censored itself on any items that could have undermined military morale. That is what responsible journalism would have been. When reporting on security issues, transparency and openness are not always the top criteria.

The televised press conference with the surviving crew members left a fatal scar on the integrity of the military. The sailors, clad in loose hospital gowns, dropped their heads and eyes as if they were prisoners before a jury. The captain was seen struggling to wipe away tears.

They did nothing but escape death at the sea border. No country on this planet treats and interrogates surviving soldiers as if they are prisoners. Show me the men who would put their lives on the line for such a country.

The press conference was staged to answer public curiosity and suspicion. But public opinion is not the only yardstick in state affairs. Public opinion cannot justify arbitrariness or viciousness on the pretext of democracy and freedom. Public opinion is valuable, but security is a field that cannot always oblige public opinion.

The defense minister, who is in charge of national defense, is entitled to his own judgment and opinion. Defense officials must also be able to use their expertise to make military decisions regardless of mass opinion. To allow a civilian to head the fact-finding investigation on the Cheonan sinking is an act that undermines the credibility of the military. That decision too was made in consideration of the opinions of the majority.

For its part, the military is not without fault. It should have been open on issues it could share, but otherwise withhold confidential information by resolutely saying so. Still, if the commander in chief is doubtful of the military, who will command it? To whom can we entrust our safety and security?

The Cheonan incident raises important questions on the role of liberty and security in times of crisis. Democracy and security sometimes stand at opposite ends of an axis. When democracy is overstressed, it can cost us security. To uphold democracy, public opinion must be respected.

But for the sake of a state’s well-being, security must also be valued. The two must be in balance. The Constitution defines the president’s duty as a patron of a democratic system and top executive in defense command.

The president has the obligation to defend the value of democracy as well as protect the country. He cannot disregard one at the cost of the other. No matter what the public says, the president as the commander in chief must support and protect the military. The press and public must also have a balanced view. We must all remember that when one side tilts too far, the other will be fatally hurt. We must not over-exercise our liberty so as to safeguard national security and maintain a mature democratic society.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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