Should we sacrifice some of our civil liberties to help fight the war on terror (e.g. through warrantless wiretapping or provisions of the Patriot Act)?
Overview/BackgroundThe large scale of the 9/11 attacks exposed some obvious security flaws in our system. Terrorists slipped through immigration and airport checks and managed to live, train, and plan in the U.S. for several years. Fears were justifiably raised of several other groups of terrorists (called sleeper cells) waiting and planning for the order to commit their designated terrorist attack. Congress almost immediately passed the Patriot Act, which gave the government substantially more powers to track down these terrorists. Security has been tightened at airports, ports, borders, etc. and a Department of Homeland Security has been created to oversee the efforts.
As more government power has been added, many have charged that our privacy and civil rights are being slowly taken away. For example, people are being locked up without a trial or access to a lawyer. Another example is the integrated system, called Total Information Awareness (TIA), which is in the process of being created to track data on everyone in the country, including credit card purchases, library book checkouts, group affiliations, cell phone records, and gun ownership. Also, the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, undertook certain domestic NSA spy operations on Americans without court oversight. Civil rights advocates say a dangerous form of government "Big Brother" is being established that threatens to destroy the American way of life. Dubious wartime efforts throughout our history, such as Japanese internment, the Palmer raids, and Cold War McCarthyism, have been cited as justifiable reasons for these fears. Many of the policies continued under President Obama, including other techniques such as setting up wiretaps without a court warrant.
The question remains, how much should our civil rights and privacy be reduced to fight the war on terror? What is the proper balance?
Terrorists often don't commit crimes until they carry out the terrorist act itself.
In our current system of justice, people must commit a crime before they can be arrested. Unfortunately, the
first time a terrorist commits a crime may result in thousands of deaths (as we saw so vividly on 9/11). Many
terrorists are so fanatical that they will sacrifice their lives for their cause. When that's the case, we don't
have much of a deterrent. Al Qaeda manuals even describe how to blend into society as a "law-abiding" citizen.
Thousands or millions could potentially be killed if we fail in our efforts.
Over 3000 people died on 9/11/01. This is a small number compared to the number that could die if a nuclear, chemical,
or biological attack was carried out. Terrorists have made no secrets about their desire for such weapons. Is there
any doubt they would use the weapons if they could? For example, Jose Padilla was arrested for planning to build
and disperse a nuclear "dirty bomb". He may not have technically committed
a crime--yet. Does that mean we should
have waited until he finished the bomb and used it against a city like New York?
If we had information the 9/11 terrorists were about to strike, but
they hadn't committed a crime, should we have arrested them?
The economic damage of attacks can put many people out of work and destroy wealth.
The 9/11 attacks cost our economy untold billions. And since economic aid and the world economy is so dependent on
the success of the U.S. economy, people around the world suffered. There is more to consider than just number of
lives saved or lost. You also have to consider quality of life. When the American economy weakens, thousands
are put out of work. Thousands or millions around the world are brought closer to poverty/starvation levels. The
costs of inaction are usually far higher than costs of action.
Intelligence and circumstantial evidence can lead agents to the identification of a
likely terrorist, but they may not be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
Intelligence collection is a very inexact science. You get pieces of information here and there, which individually
don't mean much, but put together, identify very likely terrorist suspects. Most elite terrorists have become
experts at avoiding any actions that could lead to arrest, and it's likely that agents will be unable to prove their
case "beyond a reasonable doubt", especially when the terrorist acts
haven't been committed. For example, consider
a suspect who is from Iran, regularly visits a militant Islamic mosque, has checked out books on chemical weapons,
has sent e-mails mentioning the "next ground zero", and has been seen with Al Qaeda members now in custody. None
of these suspicious activities constitute a crime, but shouldn't agents be able to at least watch or investigate
such a person?
We would have additional tools for fighting non-terrorism related crimes such as drug trafficking and racketeering.
Fighting the war on drugs, curbing organized crime, tracking kidnappers, etc. often necessitate the same tracking
of information as the war on terror. Thus, we would give law enforcement another tool in fighting these things.
This is become extra important as the drug war in Mexico continues
to spill over the border.
A certain amount of trust has to be put in the hands of the government if we are to accomplish anything.
Dubious actions and scandals from the past such as Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica-gate, Teapot Dome, etc. have
weakened the trust in the U.S. government. Indeed, it's probably hard to find any government official that hasn't
lied or misled at some point is his or her career. Still, things aren't like the past. There is so much media
attention to everything officials do or say that they can't get away with the same misdeeds. Government
officials are people too and generally want to do the right thing. The media brings thunder-and-lightning
attention to the
slightest of government misdeeds, but these acts are only a small percentage of the
total work done. We have to give
officials a little trust in doing their jobs. Government officials need to be able to concentrate on answering
the question "How best do I get the job done?" rather than "What do I have to do to cover my butt?" or "What do
I have to do to draw the least amount of criticism?"
Terrorists will be forced to re-organize and plan around all the new anti-terror methods, which can
be expensive and time-consuming.
The terrorists that were able to carry out the 9/11 attacks and the ones that have been able to elude law
enforcement up to this point are highly sophisticated. They probe for weaknesses and change as necessary. This causes
delays and creates additional expenses. For example, when Osama bin Laden realized we were monitoring his cell phone transmissions,
he simply stopped using them and resorted to hand-delivered messages. This obviously takes more time and is more
expensive. Advanced systems such as Total Information Awareness (TIA) would force a wave of changes and re-organization.
For example, if TIA monitors library book checkouts, terrorists may start buying books
instead of borrowing them. If we monitor all
credit card transactions, terrorists will start carrying more cash.
If we monitor all Google searches, terrorists may start using Yahoo
New methods of data collection can help law enforcement increase the probability of zoning in on the guilty
people and avoiding harassment of the innocent ones.
The United States houses close to 300 million people. It's impossible for law enforcement to check out and monitor
everything about everyone. Improved techniques of data collection such as TIA would allow officers to focus on the
suspicious characters and not waste their time on innocent ones. For example, consider a database of 250 million
people. You do a search on Muslims over age 14 who are originally from a hostile Arab country (Iran, Syria, etc.). This
may bring your total down to 500,000. Next, you do a search on people that have checked out books on weapons of mass
destruction who are members of militant groups such as Nation of Islam. Now, you're down to 5,000. Law
enforcement would continue similar searches until they have a group of people who fit a likely profile for
terrorism. Sure, there will be some innocent ones that turn up in the search, but more in-depth background checks and
brief surveillance can easily establish a person's innocence. Bottom line--those that have done nothing wrong (and
who don't plan to do wrong) have nothing to worry about; those who protest the loudest are often those with
the most to hide.
Our American system of checks-n-balances prevents the government from going too far.
Giving the government unchecked power to invade privacy and spy is indeed a good reason for paranoia, but it doesn't sit
with reality. Hysterics in the media cite similar abuses of Hitler, Stalin, and Hussein, but there's a huge difference in
the case of our country--our system of checks-n-balances. First of all, the courts can overrule any actions by the
President or by Congress. Secondly, officials can be voted out of office for their abuse. Third, public opinion can
raise an uproar that prompts the government to modify or overturn laws. Lastly, we have an enthusiastic media that
combs through every word and action of the people in power. Given all this oversight, the American people always have
the ability to pull back the reins on the people in power.
Taking away civil rights essentially destroys the very definition of what it means to be an American, which
in effect gives the terrorists a victory.
One of the things that makes our country great is the ability to live a life free of government interference,
whether or not you are in the majority and whether or not you agree with the government. The erosion of civil rights
breaks down the very essence of what it is to be an American. There is no better way to award the terrorist actions
than to destroy our way of life.
Constitutional protections are being violated.
The U.S. Constitution is one of the most enduring, intelligently-written
documents of all time. It is the main reason our
nation has become the most successful nation on Earth. It is the reason that people from all over the world long to
emigrate here. Unfortunately, the War on Terror is eroding the force of the Constitution. People can be tracked
at their place of worship (1st Amendment violation); they can be held without a trial (7th
Amendment violation); and they can be
prevented from consulting a lawyer or facing the witnesses against them (6th
Amendment violation). In addition, the right to
privacy (long implied from amendments 1,3,4,9 and others) has been deeply violated. It has been said the U.S. Attorney
General, in his fight against terror, has the U.S. Constitution in one had and a scissors in the other.
There is a potential for abuse by this administration or future administrations.
The "War on Terror" is a war that has potentially no end. Unlike
nation-vs-nation wars, there will never be a
cease fire or peace treaty signed to officially end the war. To enhance government powers, various wartime
emergency clauses have been cited as justification. Thus, normal rights like a trial-by-jury are being taken away,
even for U.S. citizens, on the grounds of being a "time of danger". That leaves the door open for years of civil
rights abuse. You may say "Fine, I trust the Obama administration to do the right things", but what about future
administrations? If we have more large-scale terrorist incidents, how bad are things going to get? Could we end
up in the type of paranoid police state that many Middle Eastern
countries live in?
It could lead to racial profiling and other methods of discrimination & harassment.
There are many Arab-Americans, nuclear scientists, Muslims, bioweapons experts, immigrants, etc. that are
law-abiding loyal Americans. Should they be subject to abuse or harassment simply because they fall into a
certain category? We've
come a long way in correcting the many civil rights abuses of the past. We shouldn't go backwards by singling
out new minorities to discriminate against.
The government could use the information for non-terror political purposes (e.g. blackmail, embarrassment of
While the War on Terror may be a good reason for implementing steps such as the Total Information Awareness system,
there's a lot of potential for the government to abuse the information they learn. For example, imagine the party
in power learns a rival candidate used his credit card to buy admission to a homosexual movie theater. The government
could somehow leak the information to help its members in the next election. Not only could information by used
to embarrass or blackmail political rivals, it could also be used to destroy anyone who decides to speak out against
the country. Virtually all of us have something damaging from our past, especially when it may be taken out of
context. The government could use their new powers to spy on anyone they don't like. This provides way too much
potential for abuse.
Abusing the rights of moderate Muslims and certain other groups may push them to the side of extremists,
possibly taking away a source of tips on finding existing terrorists and also possibly creating new terrorist
There are plenty of Muslims and other Americans who, while not exactly loyal citizens, don't believe in the vicious
tactics taken by terrorists. These moderates are in the ideal position for providing tips to law enforcement
officials on existing terrorist cells & plans. However, a wave of abuse of their civil rights may increase their
dislike for the country to the point that they start to sympathize with the terrorists. Thus, it may take away our
best source of information, and at worst, create a new breed of terrorist recruits that will perpetrate more
horrendous acts against innocent civilians.
Related LinksBreaking the Vicious Cycle: Preserving our Liberties While Fighting Terror
Patriot Act: A Chance to Commit to National Security
Slippery Arguments: Why Freedom Ain't Everything
The Civil Liberties Crisis
Department of Homeland Security
Fight Total Information Awareness
Freedom of Information Center: TIA
Written by: Joe Messerli
Page Last Updated: 01/02/2012