The earliest Americans regarded the right to personal safety as the main right of individuals. Government is obligated to uphold this right more than any other right. It is this right that ISIS is systematically shredding across Europe, as governments throughout the Continent appear increasingly powerless to protect their citizens from this violent threat. Without personal security, all other rights become meaningless because they can’t be enjoyed effectively. That American voters in the current election season are embracing politicians who promise to protect their right to personal security is entirely human and entirely American.
The first Americans understood how central is the right of personal security. They relied upon the British political philosophers of their time in framing their argument for rights and revolution. When Thomas Jefferson wrote of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, he was lifting almost verbatim the formulation of basic rights stated by the British philosopher John Locke: those of “life, liberty and property.” The British political philosopher whose work, in turn, influenced Locke was Thomas Hobbes.
Hobbes’s book Leviathan argued that the right of personal security is the fundamental civil right on which all other rights depend. Loyal subjects have a right to rebel against the Crown if the government fails to secure this right. When George Washington, following the American Revolution, saw this right threatened by the violent anarchy of Shays’ Rebellion, he urged the new nation to adopt a stronger federal union and a new Constitution.
The attacks on Brussels punctuate and remind us of these truths. ISIS has laid siege to our most basic civil right. The primacy of this right explains why the American people, quite reasonably, are demanding swift and resolute action by their government to ensure domestic tranquility.