Should We Give Up Our Liberties?

October 7, 2001

Should Americans give up their liberties to fight terrorism? Until the terrorist attack on America, it's doubtful that you would find a majority who would say yes. The attack on America changed everything. An ABC-Washington Post poll taken the day after September 11 found that two out of three Americans were willing to surrender civil liberties to stop terrorism.

Frankly, I find that poll and recent statements by commentators and political leaders distressing. Yet we shouldn't be surprised. In the past, Americans have been all too willing to surrender their liberties to leaders who promised a safer America. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent Japanese-Americans to relocation camps during World War II. But before we start trying to repeal whole sections of the Bill of Rights, I think we need to ask fundamental questions and draw important distinctions.

Common sense safety precautions that do not threaten our basic constitutional liberties should be implemented immediately. This would include tightening airport security and providing for secure airplane cockpits. While many of us might question how effective some of the other precautions might be (patting down 80-year-old grandmothers, banning any parking near airport terminals), at least they do not threaten our constitutional liberties.

But in the rush to provide safety, many leaders have forgotten that the framers of the Constitution wisely provided protections because we are too willing to give up liberties in a time of crisis. Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) said recently, "Times of tragedy and war naturally bring out strong emotions in all of us. Yet we must be careful to preserve personal liberty and privacy rights in the months ahead. Sometimes the people are only too anxious to sacrifice their constitutional liberties during a crisis, hoping to gain some measure of security. Yet nothing would please the terrorists more than if we willingly gave up some of our cherished liberties because of their actions."

So what can we do? Here are six actions that I believe are acceptable at this time:

  1. Suspend all student visas for six months until the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) can institute background checks and a tracking system to monitor their movements and ensure they leave when their time has expired. Congress is already considering this suspension.

  2. Monitor foreign visitors who enter this country on temporary or student visas. Congress passed a law in 1996 to do that very thing. But the law was set aside last year during the Clinton administration. We need to keep tabs on foreigners in this country who could be potential terrorists.

  3. Require all aliens to register with the United States once a year. We used to require foreign nationals to do this but abandoned this requirement during the 1980s. It's time to reestablish this requirement.

  4. Require all aliens to notify the INS whenever they change their address. These two requirements will allow the government to be more effective in tracking aliens and monitoring their activities.

  5. Institute more extensive background checks. One of the terrorists (Mohammed Atta) was on a FBI terrorism watch list, yet he was still able to obtain a pilot's license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Other suspected terrorists (now in custody) apparently obtained licenses to drive trucks with hazardous materials.

  6. Give law enforcement warrants that enable them to track suspected terrorists. Frankly this isn't the problem it's been made out to be. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, over 10,000 requests have been made for secret terrorism and security-related wiretaps. No judge has ever denied any of these requests.

There are, however, many suggestions and proposals that I believe we should reject or at least only consider after a long and lengthy debate about their unintended consequences. Here are four unacceptable proposals:

  1. Reject any attempt to weaken or suspend the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment guarantees American citizens the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." It also requires that a specific warrant be obtained before a search is made of a person, their house, their papers, or personal effects. Law-abiding Americans should not have to lose their fundamental constitutional rights in the fight against terrorism.

  2. Reject expansion of powers to acquire private and sensitive information of American citizens. Some in law enforcement would like to obtain credit card information, phone records, and other confidential information of Americans.

  3. Reject the push for a national ID card. Despite overwhelming disapproval that stopped the implementation of a national ID card, some members of Congress are now proposing this as a solution to terrorism.

    Issuing internal passports has been one of the methods used by communist leaders to control their people. Citizens had to carry these passports at all times and had to present them to authorities if they wanted to travel within the country, live in another part of the country, or apply for a job. Establishing a national ID would most likely place a burden on law-abiding citizens, while terrorists and criminals would merely use phony IDs to perpetrate their crimes.

  4. Reject the push to increase the use of snooping devices such as Carnivore or Eschelon. Carnivore is the FBI's latest electronic snooping device that can read your e-mail right off your mail server. This automated system to wiretap the Internet is called Carnivore because it rapidly finds the "meat" in vast amounts of data flowing through computer networks. Eschelon is a global eavesdropping system the U.S. and England have been using to spy on billions of satellite-transmitted phone calls, e-mails, wireless transmissions, and fax messages.

Terrorists know their messages will be monitored and usually communicate face-to-face or in ways that avoid detection. Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens have their privacy violated in the name of fighting terrorism.

Terrorism poses a real threat to America, but that doesn't mean we have to give up our liberties in order to fight this menace. If we lose our liberties, then the terrorists have already won a victory.