The most oft-repeated argument by those defending the president’s decision to trample all over the Constitution and circumvent official channels to wage his secret spy program is that such methods are necessary to protect Americans. The president himself gravely intoned that the program “is critical to saving American lives.” The same defense is invoked on behalf of the FBI program under which groups such as Greenpeace and Catholic Workers were infiltrated and spied on. And yet, while the government was busy doing large-scale, warrantless wiretapping and keeping tabs on vegans, someone managed to steal 400 pounds of high-powered plastic explosives from the bunker of a bomb expert in New Mexico.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirmed today they are investigating the large theft from Cherry Engineering, a company owned by Chris Cherry, a scientist at Sandia National Labs.

The theft was discovered Sunday night by local authorities. The thieves used blowtorches to cut through thick steel walls at the bunker, authorities told ABC News.

The missing 400 pounds of explosives includes 150 pounds of what is known as C-4 plastic, or "sheet explosive," which can be shaped and molded and is often used by terrorists and military operatives.

"It is a very dangerous material, we want to keep this off the streets," Cherry told ABC News.

Also, 2,500 detonators were missing from a storage explosive container, or magazine, in a bunker owned by Cherry Engineering.

Authorities have no leads in the theft and said there is no indication terrorism is involved.

The theft is one of the largest reported cases from a facility in the United States in the last decade ending 2004. During that time, a total of about 1,000 pounds was reported stolen from government facilities in 14 reported incidents. It is unknown whether there is any connection to terrorism.

A special agent at ATF said the incident was unusual because such high-powered material was targeted.

The missing material could potentially make numerous bombs.
Numerous undectable bombs, at that.

I’m not suggesting that the government should have known about this alarming theft and prevented it. (I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t have, either; I just don’t know.) What I am saying is that this incident illustrates why “saving American lives” is a ridiculous justification for encroaching upon people’s civil liberties. Bad things can (and probably will) still happen. That’s the exchange we make for being free. We take the risk that something bad might happen, knowing that the alternative is to live in a police state. Sure, if you never leave your house, you’ll never get hit by a bus, but you’ll never feel the sun on your face, either.

The president likes to say that if he didn’t do things like authorize the spy program, and then America got hit by another terrorist attack, people would ask him why he didn’t do everything he could to stop it. But what he should be saying, what any reasonable, responsible leader would say, is that it’s impossible to be free and totally safe. That’s the chance we take, but it’s worth it.

Instead, Bush likes to play the superhero, and Cheney goes around skulking and growling, reminding people that we “haven’t been hit” since 9/11, as if that’s testimony to their awesome terrorist-fighin’ skillz. Such bold rhetoric has only served to give the administration every reason to authorize things like the spy program, in a desperate attempt to live up to an ideal that no leader of a free country can.

(Hat tip AMERICAblog.)

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