Assessing the Price of Liberty

In times of national crisis, especially war, a lot of trite platitudes about the nobility of sacrifice are bandied about, as if pundits and politicians just discovered a dusty copy of “”Bartlett’s Quotations”” on their office shelves.

When a country battles abroad or is besieged, the reasoning goes, certain luxuries to which we are accustomed must be given up. Food may be rationed; travel may be restricted; laws may be tightened; and the allowances we take for granted in our society may be curtailed.

Reviewing such circumstances in U.S. history is a long and redundant process. Obviously, they run the gamut from harmless inconveniences — for example, the unavailability of ladies’ stockings during World War II due to the need for nylon for parachutes — to gross abuses of human rights, such as the internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans during the same war. It is the myriad offenses that occur somewhere in between these extremes that Americans must now concern ourselves with.

President George W. Bush and his advisers have made it quite clear that military action is on the immediate horizon, and have from the outset used the word “”war”” to prepare us for a protracted engagement. This will be no hit-and-run, dine-and-dash spurt of air strikes from which America emerges unaffected, unscathed. Indeed, waging a “”war on terrorism”” at all is arguably unwinnable in the first place — but that’s for another debate.

With no clearly defined long-term goals for the lofty campaign, it’s safest to assume the worst: We’re in for a long and bumpy ride. Eradicating terrorism? Who decides who’s a terrorist? How will we ever know if they’re all gone?

National leaders have lately been encouraging us to return to our normal lives as much as is possible. They remind us that the nature of the terrorist attack is to inspire fear, to disrupt a community’s sense of itself and to cause chaos. They say that if we cannot move on and show our strength, then the terrorists have won.

They would do well to remember these words when considering how to balance the demands of national security and the liberties we all value as Americans.

Lawmakers will face tough calls in the upcoming weeks, months and years, and it all begins now, when they set the tenor for the continuing conflict and its ramifications on the home front.

Although America moves toward an open-ended war, our civil liberties must be preserved at all costs. If we allow our freedom-loving society to be altered, our democracy denigrated, then we have given the haters of the West exactly what they want.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has proposed a wide-ranging package of legislation aimed at making it easier to bring terrorists to justice. The measures are collectively called the “”Mobilization Against Terrorism Act,”” and Ashcroft has repeatedly expressed his desire to push them through Congress with minimal debate and no public hearings.

While Ashcroft’s intent is undoubtedly honorable and the immediacy surrounding threats to American citizens is pressing and very real, in the words of a terribly wise forefather, haste makes waste.

It is better to ensure that legislators and the American public are aware of the full ramifications of such laws than to charge ahead blindly and later be stuck with more than we bargained for. Public debate of the proposals is especially crucial when they potentially threaten the most important underpinnings of our society and government.

The measures to be debated vary in their scope from expansions of surveillance abilities for law enforcement to allowances for opening what were once matters of private record.

Ashcroft argues that because of the nature of terrorism, and the essentially different means by which it is organized and executed, the government must keep up with the times and exploit all possible lines of investigation. Some of the provisions are a concern; some are not.

One of the better aspects of the act is the revision of the nation’s wiretap policy. Currently, investigators must obtain a judge’s approval for a wiretap for a specific phone number, and the review process is not an easy one, involving a high degree of evidence and justification for the wiretap. Investigators must prove not only that the suspect is, indeed, likely involved in illegal acts, but that the suspect uses the phone line to be tapped to conduct the untoward business.

Fifty years ago, when a criminal might only use one phone number to telephone associates and accessories, such a review process was acceptable. Now, however, it is easy for a criminal to maintain several wireless accounts at once, and switch phones and phone numbers on a regular, unpredictable basis, foiling wiretap efforts.

Ashcroft has proposed that wiretaps now be targeted at an individual, and not any specific phone line associated with that individual, allowing investigators to adapt to the suspect’s changing means of communication. The review process for the wiretap OK would still be rigorous, and the rights of Americans would be preserved.

An eyebrow-raising aspect of the measure is the power to access previously private educational records of suspected terrorists — and bear in mind that under this act, a “”terrorist”” is not only the suicide bomber or deranged murderer, but also anyone who knows or should know that an organization he supports in any way is a terrorist organization.

Currently, the only persons able to access one’s transcripts and other elements of education files are the individual in question and his parents. Consent from one or the other is required for investigators to view any such records.

Obviously, information contained in these files could provide relevant evidence in pursuing and identifying terrorists, especially in establishing that they had the know-how to craft a certain type of biological weapon or, say, fly a certain kind of commercial airliner.

However, such a power also subjects the sensitive academic histories of Americans to prying eyes. Privacy is a fundamental right in this country, and one we should prize and defend.

If the idea of federal investigators being able to check out students’ embarrassing O-chem grades isn’t thrilling, consider instead one of the more upsetting provisions under the act.

Americans are fortunate in that we have a well-regulated set of checks and balances within our legal system. These checks and balances lessen the number of abuses that can be committed (obviously abuses still occur, and it’s safe to assume that plenty go unpunished).

However, many other countries in our global community afford no such consideration to their citizens, and are not restricted from violating people’s rights in order to apprehend suspects or gain information.

Out of some sense of moral duty or common decency, it has been America’s policy not to use electronic surveillance information gathered by foreign governments with methods that violate our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Ashcroft would change that.

One assumes that he is trying to foster international cooperation and ensure that intelligence is disseminated without regards to political borders — a noble goal and certainly useful in fighting terrorism.

However, to accept information that we know could have been gathered in unsavory ways (and no doubt our government is well-acquainted with which countries engage in such practices) is tantamount to condoning the very behavior we have prohibited on our home soil. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

The American Civil Liberties Union identifies perhaps the most threatening provision under Ashcroft’s act, which would greatly expand the government’s power to detain and deport suspected terrorists without a legal hearing, or indeed evidence.

Also, the time limit on detaining suspected criminals, now 24 hours, would be eliminated for those suspected of terrorism.

This is a total rejection of the judicial standards for which this country has fought and is held up as a model among democratic nations. The ACLU’s executive director, Anthony D. Romero, stated, “”Without a legal hearing, there would be no opportunity to contest the Attorney General’s decision to scrutinize the criteria upon which the decision was made.””

Clearly, this vests entirely too much power in the hands of one government agency and provides no check on that considerable power.

Juliette Kayyem, the director of a counterterrorism project at Harvard University, explained to The Boston Globe, “”Based on suspicion and innuendo, people are going to be able to be detained indefinitely.””

The enactment of this measure has the potential to become a major setback to justice in this country, and should be completely dropped from consideration.

Many advocates of the act have suggested a so-called “”sunset clause,”” whereby the act has an expiration date of sorts, upon which the legislation must be re-evaluated. If Congress then decides it is no longer necessary as we are no longer at war, they can simply let it expire. However, as stated above, the very nature of this “”war on terrorism”” is indefinite, with no clear end in sight, and so we must carefully consider what could effectively become permanent legislation.

Throughout the mounting discussion surrounding the Mobilization Against Terrorism Act, the act’s proponents have consistently said they are dedicated to protecting Americans’ civil liberties while acknowledging the sacrifices necessary in striving for improved national security.

It is a difficult balance to strike, and care must be taken. Some of the Act hits the right notes, while others ought to be dropped altogether.

Ashcroft himself said it well on Sept. 20 in his speech at the Pennsylvania crash site of United Airlines flight 193. He explained that the terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11 tried to “”disrupt America’s life of freedom and liberty,”” and that we cannot let them achieve this goal.

If we give up the liberties and freedoms that make America what it is, then they have won.

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