Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Preserving Our Liberties While Fighting Terrorism

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When terrorists perpetrate atrocities againstinnocent American civilians, the public response isinitially one of shock, which then quickly turns intoanger. It is also common for people to experience adeep sense of anxiety in the aftermath of suchattacks--especially as they hear poignant storiesabout fellow citizens who were so suddenly andunexpectedly killed. Such stories are a harshreminder of one's own mortality and vulnerability.

Government officials typically respond to terroristattacks by proposing and enacting"antiterrorism" legislation. To assuage the wide-spreadanxiety of the populace, policymakersmake the dubious claim that they can preventterrorism by curtailing the privacy and civil libertiesof the people. Because everyone wants to besafe and secure, such legislation is usually verypopular and passes the legislative chambers ofCongress with lopsided majorities. As the presidentsigns the antiterrorism bill into effect, toomany people indulge in the assumption thatthey are now safe, since the police, with theirnewly acquired powers, will somehow be able tofoil the terrorists before they can kill again. Theplain truth, however, is that it is only a matter oftime before the next attack.

This cycle of terrorist attack followed by governmentcurtailment of civil liberties must bebroken--or our society will eventually lose thekey attribute that has made it great: freedom.The American people can accept the reality thatthe president and Congress are simply not capableof preventing terrorist attacks from occurring.Policymakers should stop pretending otherwiseand focus their attention on combatingterrorism within the framework of a free society.

Tim Lynch

Timothy Lynch is director of the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice.