Terrorism and Liberty in the Trump Era

Terrorism is only a real threat if it frightens us into destroying our liberties.



After the atrocities of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush's approval rating soared from 50 to 90 percent. A month after the attacks, nearly 60 percent of Americans said they trusted the government in Washington to do what is right almost always or most of the time; that was the highest it had been in 40 years. In the weeks after 9/11, more than 50 percent were very to somewhat worried that they or a family member would be a victim in a terrorist attack. Keying off of these fears, various commentators stepped forward to sagely intone that the "Constitution is not a suicide pact." (I prefer "Give me liberty or give me death.")

Evidently averse to potentially committing suicide, 74 percent of the country agreed that "Americans will have to give up some of their personal freedoms in order to make the country safe from terrorist attacks." In 2002, an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported that 79 percent of Americans agreed that it was "more important right now for the federal government to investigate terrorist threats even if that intrudes on personal privacy." Support for intrusive investigations purportedly aimed at preventing terrorist attacks fell to only 57 percent in 2013, shortly after Edward Snowden's revelations of extensive domestic spying by the National Security Agency (NSA). In the most recent poll, it has ticked back up to 72 percent.

Instead of urging Americans to exercise bravery and defend their liberty, our political leaders fanned fears and argued that we must surrender freedoms. The consequences included the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the proliferation of metal detectors at the entrances of public buildings, the requirement to show government-issued IDs at more and more public venues, the increased militarization of our police forces, and tightened travel restrictions to neighboring countries where passports were once not required.

In October 2001, the House of Representatives passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act just 15 minutes after its 315 pages of text were made available to members. This law eviscerated the Fourth Amendment's privacy protections, and a massive secret domestic spying operation run by the NSA was set up. (Years later, numerous reports by outside and government analysts found that surrendering our civil liberties had been useless, since NSA domestic spying had had "no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.") The Central Intelligence Agency was authorized to torture suspected terrorists; that too proved not just illiberal but ineffective. According to a recent Brown University study, the Global War on Terror (*) has cost $3.2 trillion, in addition to leaving nearly 7,000 American military personnel dead and scores of thousands wounded.

How would President Donald Trump react to a significant terrorist attack, especially one motivated by radical jihadist beliefs? In a rally-around-the-flag reaction, his approval rating could surge. It is theoretically possible that such a crisis would reveal Trump as a fierce defender of American liberties, but the signs all point in a more authoritarian direction.

In a 2015 speech at the U.S.S. Yorktown, Trump argued for "closing that internet in some way" to prevent ISIS from recruiting people. "Somebody will say, 'Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech,'" he said. "These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people." When Apple refused the FBI's demand that it provide a backdoor to San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook's iPhone, Trump asked, "Who do they [Apple] think they are? No, we have to open it up." He urged Americans to boycott Apple until it complied with the FBI's demand to decrypt the phone. More generally speaking, Trump has said that he tends "to err on the side of security" and that he thinks the NSA should collect Americans' phone records. He added, "I assume when I pick up my telephone, people are listening to my conversations anyway, if you want to know the truth."

And Snowden? Trump declared, "I think he's a terrible traitor and you know what we used to do in the good old days when we were a strong country, you know what we used to do to traitors, right?" Despite the fact that the Senate's 2014 report on the CIA's detention and interrogation of terrorists found that torture is ineffective, Trump recently reiterated his belief that torture "absolutely" works.

On its way out, the Obama administration sought to stymie Trump's expressed plans to establish a Muslim registry system that would perhaps be an expanded version of the Bush administration's National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). This effort targeted all males 16 years of age or older from 25 countries, all of which but one (North Korea) are Muslim-majority. During its decade of operation, NSEERS yielded not a single terrorism conviction.

Liberty-loving Americans should refuse to be terrorized by either bomb-throwing malefactors or security-state authoritarians. Your odds of dying from a lightning strike are about 10 times higher than your chances of being killed in a terrorist attack. So when another attack comes, you should respond by going about your business as usual—and certainly don't change travel plans. Contact your politicians, especially members of Congress, and forcefully remind them that any proposed tradeoff between liberty and security is specious. In fact, tell them to get busy dismantling the current national security state and reaffirming the protections afforded us by the Bill of Rights. Terrorism is only a threat to our way of life if we allow it to frighten us into destroying our liberties.

*Disclosure: I supported the invasion of Iraq. See my 2003 article "Should Libertarianism Stop at the Water's Edge?" and my 2005 article "Iraq 2007." I was wrong.