Wartime calls for sacrifices

Dec. 4, 2001, midnight | By Stephen Wertheim | 19 years, 1 month ago

Current civil liberties restrictions are needed to win this war and, ultimately, to preserve freedom

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon mark the start of an unprecedented war, one in which America faces a stealth international terrorist organization that orchestrates the mass murder of civilians. Now, the Justice Department must assume a responsibility beyond normal law enforcement: to shield the public from further attack. Recently instituted measures, which restrict some liberties of potential terrorists, give the government the sensible tools needed to ensure that American lives—as well as American freedom—will endure.

At the heart of this debate is a conflict between two admirable priorities, the prevention of terrorism and the maintenance of an exceptionally free society. But given the brutal slaughter of innocents in New York and Washington and the strong possibility that al Qaeda operatives exist within the United States, limited intrusions on liberty cannot begin to override the incalculable benefit of thwarting those who would give their lives to end ours.

In assertions that civil liberties restrictions constitute a victory for the terrorists, critics demonstrate naïveté about America's new and extraordinary reality. That reality is a war we did not seek but must fight, at home and abroad; laws that decrease some freedoms are undesirable but are absolutely necessary. Wiretaps and electronic surveillance, methods still subject to court notification, are the only means for penetrating the technologically adept network that includes the Sept 11 hijackers, who used e-mail to communicate. Detention of foreign terrorist suspects, which is limited to seven days, prevents them from carrying out attacks while investigators determine their real identities, a task that, according to USA Today, may require time if the suspects have false identification papers as the hijackers did. These measures represent not terrorism's success but rather the government's staunch determination to terminate worldwide terrorist organizations.

Moreover, the expanded investigative tools are not very invasive, affecting few people and doing so in a reasonable manner. The Justice Department's request to interview over 5,000 male foreigners with non-immigrant visas, for example, has met intense opposition. But the interviews are voluntary, and logically, persons sought come from countries where, according to the Justice Department, terrorist activity has been conducted. The provision allowing the department to monitor conversations between attorneys and their detained clients is designed only to deter terrorism without violating due process rights. Monitoring teams have no connection with the inmate's prosecution, and both the attorney and the client are told of the monitors beforehand. Even more significant is the Justice Department's estimate that of 158,000 federal prisoners, only about 13 may be subject to monitored communications.

While they may already seem modest, current restrictions seem even more so when compared with previous restrictions imposed in America's most trying periods. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus permitted imprisonments without any explanation. Through that action and others which today's libertarians would strongly condemn, Lincoln preserved the union and actually brought about increased civil rights with the freeing of slaves. Both world wars were conducted with limitations on liberty far more severe and far more authoritarian than current anti-terror measures. Thousands of political dissenters were jailed during World War I, and thousands of Japanese Americans faced harsh internment camps in World War II. As to the President's authority during wartime, the Supreme Court's 1942 Quirin ruling, which stands today, states that the Constitution does not entitle customary legal procedures to "enemy belligerents," whether citizens or non-citizens.

Throughout debate over specific provisions, one fact must be remembered: the government failed to prevent the Sept 11 attacks because of inadequate intelligence. Therefore, strengthening intelligence-gathering activities is fundamental to precluding further acts of terror. And the sooner those tools help bring terrorists to justice, the sooner Americans can return to enjoying both the fullest security and the fullest freedom.

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Stephen Wertheim. Co-editor-in-chief Stephen Wertheim is deeply committed to reporting, even when it conflicts with such essential life activities as food consumption, sleep and viewership of Seinfeld reruns. In addition to getting carried away with writing and playing violin, Stephen thoroughly enjoys visiting and photographing spots around … More »

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