Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Preserving Our Liberties While Fighting Terrorism

June 26, 2002 • Policy Analysis No. 443

When terrorists perpetrate atrocities against innocent American civilians, the public response is initially one of shock, which then quickly turns into anger. It is also common for people to experience a deep sense of anxiety in the aftermath of such attacks–especially as they hear poignant stories about fellow citizens who were so suddenly and unexpectedly killed. Such stories are a harsh reminder of one’s own mortality and vulnerability.

Government officials typically respond to terrorist attacks by proposing and enacting “antiterrorism” legislation. To assuage the wide‐​spread anxiety of the populace, policymakers make the dubious claim that they can prevent terrorism by curtailing the privacy and civil liberties of the people. Because everyone wants to be safe and secure, such legislation is usually very popular and passes the legislative chambers of Congress with lopsided majorities. As the president signs the antiterrorism bill into effect, too many people indulge in the assumption that they are now safe, since the police, with their newly acquired powers, will somehow be able to foil the terrorists before they can kill again. The plain truth, however, is that it is only a matter of time before the next attack.

This cycle of terrorist attack followed by government curtailment of civil liberties must be broken–or our society will eventually lose the key attribute that has made it great: freedom. The American people can accept the reality that the president and Congress are simply not capable of preventing terrorist attacks from occurring. Policymakers should stop pretending otherwise and focus their attention on combating terrorism within the framework of a free society.

About the Author
Tim Lynch
Adjunct Scholar and Former Director, Project on Criminal Justice