Guarding the Home Front: Will civil liberties be a casualty in the War on Terrorism?

This article appeared in the December 2001 issue of Reason magazine.
Share

As the Declaration of Independence says, the main business of government isto secure rights, but legitimate government can't do it by any means. It can't violate rights in the name of securing them.

That frames the issue. Between those boundaries—and given a world ofuncertainty—the devil is in the details. Governments too restrained leaverights exposed. By contrast, societies that trade liberty for security, asBen Franklin noted, end often with neither.

Thus, the government's war against terrorism implicates two kinds ofrights—the rights governments are instituted to secure, and those they mustrespect in the process. At this writing, it appears that the terroristattacks of September 11 resulted from a massive government failure toprotect rights of the first kind. Predictably, friends of government are nowsaying that an undue regard for rights of the second kind led to thatfailure. That may be true, but it may also be special pleading. Wereagencies prohibited from talking to each other in the name of privacy? Ordid they simply fail to coordinate efforts? Those are the kinds of questionsthat need answering.

At this juncture, therefore, it 's difficult to say which civil libertiesare most at risk. Certainly, as September 11 demonstrated, the liberties wecreated government to secure are at risk. But can we better secure them andremain free? Yes, if we act smartly. Above all, whether with surveillance orsearches or due process, judicial oversight must be preserved—for citizensand non-citizens. It's the final safeguard for liberty.