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How the terrorist crisis threatens our personal liberties

As we wrap ourselves in the flag, let’s not forget to cling tightly to the Bill of Rights

BY DAN KENNEDY AND HARVEY SILVERGLATE


They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

— Benjamin Franklin

Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

At some level of danger to life and property, even people strongly committed to civil liberties — and not everyone is — are prepared to sacrifice some privacy, freedom of movement, and convenience to greater security.

— Harvard Law School professor Philip B. Heymann

Boston Globe, September 15, 2001

ON TUESDAY, September 11, not long after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, John Perry Barlow sent a message to the nearly 1000 people who regularly receive his " BarlowFriendz " e-mails. The contents were what might be called typical Barlow at an atypical moment. A well-known Internet libertarian and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Barlow was not about to temper himself, even during those first awful, horrifying hours.

" This morning’s events are roughly equivalent to the Reichstag fire that provided the social opportunity for the Nazi take-over of Germany, " Barlow wrote. " I am *not* suggesting that, like the Nazis, the authoritarian forces in America actually had a direct role in perpetrating this mind-blistering tragedy.... Nevertheless, nothing could serve those who believe that American ‘safety’ is more important than American liberty better than something like this. Control freaks will dine on this day for the rest of our lives. " He closed with this: " And, please, let us try to forgive those who have committed these appalling crimes. If we hate them, we will become them. "

Barlow’s message was many things: overwrought and outrageous, to be sure, but also important — even prescient, given the fearful, censorious atmosphere that has wrapped around us like a thick blanket during the past two weeks, both comforting and suffocating. As Barlow quickly learned, it also became a prime target for precisely the kind of authoritarianism he’d warned of. " Merely by calling for forgiveness for the bombers, " he told the Phoenix, " I’ve received a death threat. I’ve received some extremely ugly e-mail. " People who e-mailed him to say they agreed with him, he adds, were quick to interject that they didn’t want to be identified.

" This is what totalitarianism is really about, " Barlow says. " It’s not the imposition of dictatorial will on a population by a dictator, it’s the imposition of dictatorial will on a population by the population itself. Not that it’s going to stop me, but in much of America right now, it takes a lot of courage to speak your mind if you’re not willing to go to war against whoever the enemy might be. "

THE PURPOSE of terrorism is to terrorize. To that extent, at least, the hijackers have won a temporary victory. Surveys taken in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington show that though Benjamin Franklin may have eloquently stated the American ideal, Philip Heymann — and John Barlow — have a better sense of the public mood. In the current environment, people are all too willing to give up their " essential liberty. "

Take, for instance, a poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post on September 13, in which 92 percent of respondents said they would support " new laws that would make it easier for the FBI and other authorities to investigate people they suspect of involvement in terrorism. " More ominously, support dropped only slightly, to 71 percent, when people were asked whether they were prepared to give up " some of Americans’ personal liberties and privacy. " Another poll, conducted by CBS News and the New York Times on September 13 and 14, found much the same thing. By a margin of 74 percent to 21 percent, respondents agreed that " Americans will have to give up some of their personal freedoms in order to make the country safe from terrorist attacks. " Even when asked whether they would be " willing or not willing to allow government agencies to monitor the telephone calls and e-mail of ordinary Americans on a regular basis, " an eye-catching 39 percent were willing, and 53 percent were not — hardly a ringing affirmation of the right to be left alone. And it gets worse: this week, a poll by the Siena College Research Institute found that one-third of New Yorkers would favor internment camps for " individuals who authorities identify as being sympathetic to terrorist causes. "

Civil liberties are in grave danger today, perhaps as they have been at no other time in our history. The " war " metaphor President Bush has chosen to describe the events of September is apt, given the seriousness and deadliness of the attack against us. But, as many others have observed, it is a war of a very different kind, with no clearly defined enemy, no hard-and-fast objective, no obvious endpoint — a miasma pervaded by paranoia and suspicion. In that kind of atmosphere, the spirit of freedom — which always takes a beating during wartime — is fragile and vulnerable (see " Two Cases in Point: the Japanese and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, " page 24).

Though government officials from the president and Attorney General John Ashcroft on down have paid lip service to civil liberties, and though the media have focused on the fate of freedom with unusual vigor and perseverance, the news coming out of Washington, and from across the country, is chilling. Repressive new immigration and wiretapping laws are under consideration in Congress. Arab-Americans are being harassed and attacked. Music is being censored. Television personalities are apologizing for speaking their minds.

No sane person would object to more-stringent security at airports — although such common-sense steps as installing better doors to protect pilots from terrorists would do more than screening passengers who look vaguely Arab, or banning plastic knives. Trampling on the Constitution is another thing altogether.

In a mind-boggling column for the New York Post last week in which he labeled foreign-born Middle Easterners a potential " fifth column, " John Podhoretz wrote: " Leftist civil libertarians and right-wing anti-government types can do their part ... to protect Muslims and Arab-Americans — with a generous display of silence and understanding when it comes to the new surveillance techniques being adopted by law enforcement. Their standard-issue complaints ring hollow at a time of war, when civil liberties must necessarily be curtailed to some degree. "

Obviously, fighting terrorism worldwide will not be sufficient to save the United States as we know it. If Podhoretz’s sneering dismissal of constitutional protections is any indication, we’re going to have to fight repression at home as well.

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Issue Date: September 27 - October 4, 2001