Civil liberties may take a hit


It's such a cliche to say that the reality hasn't sunk in yet—but it's true. Despite all the devastating images, part of me still doesn't belive that the Twin Towers are no more, or that the station where I have so often arrived in downtown New York by local train station from New Jersey lies under a pile of rubble, or that thousands are dead in what is unquestionably the most devastating terrorist act ever committed, not just on American soil but anywhere.

And there are so many other cliches that come so easily right now and that are true: above all, that the world will never be the same.

As always, there are those who would exploit an unthinkable tragedy for their own hateful agendas. On the left, a few commentators, such as filmmaker-activist Michael Moore, have found this a good time to decry the sins of American capitalism and US foreign policy for which we are supposedly being punished by the world's dispossessed.

On the right, a few so-called men of God have found this a good time to decry the "wickedness" of gays and lesbians, feminists, the American Civil Liberties Union, and abortion providers, for which we are supposedly being punished by the Lord.

So far, however, the divisive rhetoric isn't finding many takers.

Americans are united in mourning and just anger. The way we have come together to help and support those affected by the horror of last week's bombings shows us at our best as a people.

And yet moments of national unity and resolve are always of concern to those of us who are concerned with the expanding powers of the state and the fate of individual rights and civil liberties.

Historically, individual freedom has not fared well in wartime, understandably so. And whatever military action we may take at the moment, one of the fears is that a war against terrorism may be, at least for the foreseeable future, a permanent war.

There are libertarians who say that it doesn't have to be that way. They argue that, if our government only withdrew from meddling in regions where we have no real interest, stop playing global policeman, and limited itself to providing for a national defense against foreign attack, we wouldn't be a terrorist target.

Alas, this is a myopic position. Aside from whether a 21st century democracy can survive in isolation, the sort of people who carried out this monstrous act hate us for much more than our foreign policy.

Note that their targets included not only the Pentagon and (apparently) Capitol Hill or the White House, but the World Trade Center—a symbol and a bastion of international capitalism, not of US military power.

Philosopher David Kelley, director of the Objectivist Center, makes this point eloquently in an essay on the center's Web site, "The Assault on Civilization." (which strikes a chord whether or not one shares the center's philosophy, based on the writings of Ayn Rand).

The fanatics behind the bombings, Kelley writes, hate the West's cultural power most—"our secular culture of freedom, reason, and the pursuit of happiness. They hate our individualism; what they want is an authoritarian society where thought and behavior are controlled by true believers."

We could stay out of world affairs and they would still hate and fear our influence.

What to do, then?

To sacrifice our freedoms to fear of terrorism would destroy the very way of life that we seek to protect and hand the terrorists a victory. On the other hand, a free society is not a suicide pact.

We will undoubtedly have to put up with tougher security at airports. The movements of foreign visitors will be scrutinized more closely. Perhaps most alarming to many civil libertarians, it's likely that the government will expand its ability to monitor electronic mail, which has been a controversial issue for some time.

Do I like the idea of the government intercepting e-mail? No. But, as long as there's judicial oversight and due process, that's no different from its longstanding power to intercept regular mail.

Do I like the idea of people being able to encrypt electronic communications so that they are beyond surveillance? Frankly, I found it scary even before Sept. 11—precisely because of the threat of terrorism.

It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes; perhaps there are no true libertarians in times of terrorist attacks.

Even in the Declaration of Independence, the right to liberty is preceded by the right to life.