Commentary

What Price Security?

By Charles V. Peña
September 17, 2001

In response to the unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, there have been many calls for increased security. Understandably, people want to feel “safe.” Some polls indicate that more than 65 percent of the public would be willing to give up some of their liberties for increased security. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) has already conceded that “we’re not going to have all the openness and freedom we have had.” Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) takes an even harder line, saying that “when you’re at war, civil liberties are treated differently.”

If Lott is right and people are willing to give up some of their liberties, have they given serious thought to what that means? It goes beyond longer check-in times and inconveniences at our nation’s airports.

The president has approved a Department of Defense request to call up 50,000 reservists for - among other things - “air and ground security, port security, and civil affairs.” Americans who have flown overseas are often shocked at the sight of police or military personnel at airports toting automatic weapons. Is that a sight we would be comfortable with in the United States?

As this is written, camouflaged Humvees are patrolling the streets of Washington, DC. Soldiers in fatigues with automatic weapons are parked on street corners and ostensibly protecting buildings. In the immediate aftermath of last Tuesday’s attacks, their deployment might be justified. But does it really make the city any safer? And do we want this to be routine?

Traffic has been snarled in the Washington, DC area due to road closings and police ID checks. Again, this might be justified as an immediate, short-term response to the attacks. But is that what people really mean when they say they are willing to give up some of their liberties in exchange for increased security?

In an eery prophesy, the 1998 movie The Siege imagined the city of New York as the focus of terrorist attacks. In response to the crisis, martial law was declared and Manhattan became a military state where the liberties and freedoms of civil society were suspended. Do we really want life to imitate art? If we are at war, is that what Lott means when he says “civil liberties are treated differently”?

Cato Institute Chairman William A. Niskanen has said, “We ought to be aware of what the Israelis are doing [armed soldiers amid the general populace, extremely tight security at airports and government buildings, racial profiling, and lax standards for evidence against defendants] and whether that’s the sort of thing we would do.” Indeed, we watch events in Israel everyday in the news. Do we want that to be our local news?

There are those who would say that without security, freedom and liberty mean nothing. I would argue that without the reality of freedom and liberty, the concepts of freedom and liberty mean nothing. We need to be very careful about rushing to give up some of our liberties in exchange for security. If the price of security is fundamentally altering the principles of freedom and liberty we believe in, then the terrorists will have done more than just destroy buildings and kill innocent Americans. They will have changed the way we live and achieved an enduring victory. We can rebuild our buildings and our lives. Once taken away, our freedom and liberty cannot be regained.

Charles V. Peña is a Senior Defense Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute.