November 26, 2001
Can Freedom be Exchanged for Security?
It's easy for elected officials in Washington to tell the American people that the government will do whatever it takes to defeat terrorism. Such assurances inevitably are followed by proposals either to restrict the constitutional liberties of the American people or spend vast sums from the federal treasury. The history of the 20th century shows that the Constitution is violated most often by Congress during times of crisis; accordingly, most of our worst unconstitutional agencies and programs began during the two world wars and the Depression. Ironically, the Constitution itself was conceived in a time of great crisis. The founders intended its provision to place inviolable restrictions on what the federal government could do even in times of great distress. America must guard against current calls for government to violate the Constitution- break the law- in the name of law enforcement.
The"anti-terrorism" legislation recently passed by Congress demonstrates how well-meaning politicians make shortsighted mistakes in a rush to respond to a crisis. Most of its provisions were never carefully studied by Congress, nor was sufficient time taken to debate the bill despite its importance. No testimony was heard from privacy experts or others from fields outside of law enforcement. Normal congressional committee and hearing processes were suspended. In fact, the final version of the bill was not made available to members before the vote! These political games should not be tolerated by the American public, especially when precious freedoms are at stake.
Almost all of the new laws focus on American citizens rather than potential foreign terrorists. For example, the definition of "terrorism" for federal criminal purposes has been greatly expanded; you now may be considered a terrorist if you belong to a pro-constitution group, a citizens militia, or various pro-life organizations. Legitimate protest against the government could place you (and tens of thousands of other Americans) under federal surveillance. Similarly, your internet use can be monitored without your knowledge, and your internet provider can be forced to hand over user information to law enforcement without a warrant or subpoena.
The bill also greatly expands the use of traditional surveillance tools, including wiretaps, search warrants, and subpoenas. Probable cause standards for these tools are relaxed or even eliminated in some circumstances; warrants become easier to obtain and can be executed without your knowledge; and wiretaps can be placed on you without a court order. In fact, the FBI and CIA now can tap phones or computers nationwide without even demonstrating that a particular phone or computer is being used by a criminal suspect.
The biggest problem with these new law enforcement powers is that they bear little relationship to fighting terrorism. Surveillance powers are greatly expanded, while checks and balances on government are greatly reduced. Most of the provisions have been sought after by domestic law enforcement agencies for years, not to fight terrorism, but rather to increase their police power over the American people. There is no evidence that our previously-held civil liberties posed a barrier to the effective tracking or prosecution of terrorists. The federal government has made no showing that it failed to detect or prevent the recent terrorist strikes because of the civil liberties that will be compromised by this new legislation.
In his speech to the joint session of Congress following the September 11th attacks, President Bush reminded all of us that the United States outlasted and defeated Soviet totalitarianism in the last century. The numerous internal problems in the former Soviet Union- its centralized economic planning and lack of free markets, its repression of human liberty, its excessive militarization- all led to its inevitable collapse. We must be vigilant to resist the rush toward ever-increasing state control of our society, so that our own government does not become a greater threat to our freedoms than any foreign terrorist.