December 10, 2001
The events of September 11th understandably made Americans far more concerned about their safety here at home. All of us want action taken to diminish the threat of future terrorist attacks, and President Bush is doing a very good job of pursuing bin Laden and his cohorts overseas. The proper focus should be on identifying those responsible and using limited military force to bring them to justice. We should arrest or kill the perpetrators abroad, use our armed forces more wisely to defend our borders, and reform immigration laws to keep terrorists out.
Unfortunately, the focus in Congress seems to be on a domestic agenda that will adversely affect millions of ordinary Americans without making us any safer. An example can be found in a Customs Service bill slated for a vote in the House this week. This bill gives customs and postal agents new authority to open and inspect outgoing U.S. mail without probable cause or a warrant. I don't think many Americans are comfortable with having federal agents open and search the mail they send! Of course it's easier to pass such a measure when the public is in a fearful mood and demanding action. Ten or twenty years from now, when the recent attacks are a distant memory, federal agents will still be opening mail- mail sent by American citizens, not terrorists.
Americans face an internal threat every bit as dangerous as foreign terrorists: the loss of domestic freedoms. Every 20th century crisis- two great wars and a decade-long economic depression- led to rapid expansions of the federal government. The cycle is always the same, with temporary crises used to justify permanent new laws, agencies, and programs.
The cycle is repeating itself. Congress has been scrambling to pass new legislation (and spend billions of your tax dollars) since September. Most of the news laws passed and dollars spent have nothing to do with defending our borders and cities against terrorist attacks. I have already written and spoken at length concerning the dangers to our civil liberties posed by the rush to pass new laws. I do not believe that our Constitution permits federal agents to monitor phones, mail, or computers without a warrant. I do not believe that government should eavesdrop on confidential conversations between attorneys and clients. I certainly do not believe "terrorism" should be defined so broadly that American citizens expressing dissent against their own government could be investigated and prosecuted as terrorists.
Remember, President Bush will not be in office forever. History demonstrates that the powers we give the federal government today will remain in place indefinitely. How comfortable are you that future Presidents won't abuse those powers? Politically-motivated IRS audits and FBI investigations have been used by past administrations to destroy political enemies. It's certainly possible that future executives could use their new surveillance powers in similarly unethical ways. The bottom line is that every American should be very concerned about the unintended consequences of policies promoted to fight an unending, amorphous battle against terrorism.