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The events of September 11 have forever altered our nation’s self-image. We have been forced to acknowledge that the sense of safety and security that we have taken for granted was largely illusory. Neither our airports nor our national monuments can be made wholly secure from a committed enemy.
Recent tragic events have brought about a rapid reconsideration of the legal restrictions placed on law enforcement and the intelligence communities. On October 26, President Bush signed into law the USA Patriot Act (Patriot Act), which makes significant changes in the legal structure within which the law enforcement and intelligence communities operate.
A sustained war against terrorism in the United States is unlike any war we have ever fought: the enemy is diffuse; the targets are civilians; the threat is constant and the war may never reach a decisive public end. But as government takes affirmative steps to protect civilians, we must not allow the war to become an excuse for the government to do whatever it likes.
In Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs documented a pattern repeated often in American history: the growth of government and loss of liberty during times of crisis. The current crisis following the September 11 terrorist attacks is no exception.
Many societies have faced the violent scourge of terrorism and attacks on innocent civilians. But of these the United States has the strongest constitutionally based institutions of justice. In this time of crisis, we should view these institutions as a source of strength, not a liability.
History has repeatedly demonstrated the dangers of allowing governments to secretly collect intelligence on their own people. When government authority extends beyond law enforcement—investigating criminal activity—it has inevitably been followed by abuses. Terrorist crimes, however, do not fit neatly into the pigeonholes of law enforcement versus intelligence, criminal versus foreign policy matters.
Throughout our history, communications and marketing efforts have played an integral (if often concealed) role during times of conflict and crisis. Leaders necessarily tried to persuade both domestic and international audiences, while carefully monitoring the release of sensitive information about military intelligence, strategy, and tactical operations. The present conflict—this "war on terrorism"—while well short of a war is different only in public awareness of the strategy.
The president’s executive order establishing military tribunals to try those whom he deems to be "terrorists" is not only in violation of international human rights law, but it also flies in the face of U.S. domestic law.
The terrorist attacks of September 11 represented a quantum leap in the deadliness and audacity of terror. They revealed a vulnerability that many in the United States had never before appreciated. And they spurred adoption of many sound initiatives to better prevent terrorism. Unfortunately, they also triggered a startling surrender of fundamental democratic principles in an attempt to purchase enhanced security—an effort that is not only constitutionally unsound but also likely to be counterproductive.
It is often said that civil liberties are the first casualties of war. It may be more accurate to say that immigrants’ civil liberties are the first to go.
Although much of the concern over managing the tension between liberty and security in response to the recent terrorist attacks has been focused on the anti-terrorism bills and the resulting USA Patriot Act (Patriot Act) adopted in late fall 2001, the issues presented by the new statute are less significant than the civil liberties issues resting entirely within the discretion of the executive branch.