Is Tim Cook any different than Kim Davis?

Getty Images

Imagine a scenario in which the FBI needed to get into the storage locker of a deceased terrorist who had killed over a dozen people. Following procedure, the agency went and got a court order from a federal judge, explaining that the storage locker could contain valuable information that could prevent future terrorist attacks. With order in hand, they proceed to the locker facility, whereupon the owner of said facility informs them that his lockers have special, impenetrable locks that only he can bypass with his special key. Worse, he's decided not to grant the FBI access because he doesn't trust them.

As ridiculous as it seems, this is truly the situation that's playing out between the federal government and Apple. Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, has decided to violate an order from a federal judge and not give the FBI a way to access the locked phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino, Calif. massacre.

Apple is claiming that this is a privacy issue: that if they were to open Farook's phone, it would endanger the privacy of millions of Americans and others worldwide.

But this is a false argument.

First off, our right to privacy is not absolute: The Fourth Amendment guarantees us protection against illegal searches. In this case, a federal warrant was issued. Furthermore, the person being searched is dead and truly has no rights.

But moreover, Cook is posing a false dichotomy between complete government invasiveness and freedom from such "tyranny." The true dichotomy is about who gets to decide whether a search is justifiable: Apple or We the People (as represented by our government and the judges it appoints).

In this way, Cook is no different than Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who decided that she also could ignore federal law. Davis violated the law out of her own personal convictions; Cook is truly doing no different.

That's not to say there aren't times when one should disobey laws, especially unjust laws. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. violated the law, as did Rosa Parks, Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and every single Founding Father.

But Apple is not confronting some form of unjust treatment: They were treated just like everyone else. But, unlike you or I, they feel that their position as one of the world's most valuable companies entitles them to special treatment.

As for their argument that the creation of pass codes would endanger us by allowing our enemies a back door into people's phones, it's a bit of a non sequitur. Again, it should be We the People who decide what is safe and what is not; not Apple the Arbiter. This argument also ignores the fact that being able to access the phones of suspected terrorists could lead to important information that would in fact make us safer.

This is more of a debate about who gets to "say what," as they say where I'm from. Does the government, chosen by the people, get to say what, or does Apple? If you opposed Kim Davis attempting to exert her will upon the government, you should know the answer to that.

Rosenfeld is an educator and historian who has done work for Scribner, Macmillan and Newsweek.