Safety and Freedom

Of all the lame excuses offered for the failures of
U.S. intelligence and security that facilitated the attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, the most disingenuous was the repeated claim that
antiterrorism efforts have been restrained by respect for America's freedoms.
Tell that to the victims of harsh counterterrorism and immigration laws passed in
the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing: the Arab Americans who were
wrongfully imprisoned for several years on the basis of secret evidence; the
asylum seekers who have been turned away from our borders by low-level
bureaucrats without ever receiving a hearing; the thousands of lawful immigrants
imprisoned and threatened with deportation for minor offenses committed years
ago. Tell it to the victims of racial profiling on our highways and in our

I don't doubt that some federal law-enforcement agents are honorable
and respectful of individual freedom. But in general, the law-enforcement
bureaucracy respects our freedoms grudgingly, only when it must, under court
order or the pressure of bad publicity. Congress is often just as bad. While both
the House and the Senate include some staunch civil libertarians, they haven't
had nearly enough influence to stop the antilibertarian and highly ineffective
counterterrorism and crime-control laws that recent Democratic and Republican
administrations have embraced. Often, law-enforcement agents violate our rights
because they've been authorized to do so by law. [See " HREF="/print/V10/42/kaminer-w.html">Taking Liberties," TAP,
January-February 1999, and "Games
Prosecutors Play
," September-October 1999, both
by Wendy Kaminer.]

Lawmakers have, in turn, been authorized by voters to sacrifice our personal
liberties for the empty promise of public safety. Sixty-five percent of people
surveyed in 1995, after Oklahoma City, favored giving the FBI power to
infiltrate and spy on suspected terrorist groups without evidence of a crime.
Fifty-eight percent wanted to give the government power to deport any noncitizen
suspected of planning terrorism. Fifty-four percent agreed that in the fight
against terrorism, the government should not be hampered by concern for
individual rights. I suspect that many more Americans support restrictions on
civil liberties today.

It's likely that when people agree to cede liberty for the sake
of order, they imagine ceding other people's liberties, not their own: If African
Americans were an active political majority in this country, they would probably
not be the victims of racial profiling. But many Americans have been willing to
tolerate minor bureaucratic intrusions for the sake of feeling safer, even when
the feeling is illusory.

Consider our submissive behavior in airports. I understand why we
line up at security gates and run bags through an X ray; it's a minor
inconvenience that seems to have a rational relationship to safety. But why do we
docilely hand over our government-issued picture IDs? The ID requirement doesn't
deter terrorists; instead it discourages people from transferring their discount
tickets. It probably increases revenue for the airlines more than it enhances
security for passengers. After all, terrorists who have access to explosives and
other weapons have access to fake IDs. And they probably lie when asked if their
bags have been constantly in their possession or if they've received any items
from strangers.

It's a small point, but the now passé notion that a picture-ID
requirement coupled with a stupid question routine was a meaningful security
measure epitomized our sloppy, thoughtless approach to airline safety. Security
lapses had nothing to do with the preservation of freedom, as recent reports on
inadequate security at Boston's Logan Airport have shown. As The Boston Globe
reported the day after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.,
low wages, poor benefits, high turnover, and inadequate background checks by the
private companies that were hired to handle airport security contributed to the
unsafe conditions at Logan--which had not gone unnoticed. According to The Wall
Street Journal,
in 1998 the Federal Aviation Administration investigated a
private cleaning service employed by the Massachusetts Port Authority (which runs
Logan). It fined Massport and major airlines $178,000 after a teenager
successfully stowed away on a plane in 1999. The airlines themselves have
resisted stronger federal oversight of security and mandates that would have
affected their bottom lines. What hampered the fight against terrorism are the
usual suspects, incompetence and venality--not respect for liberty.

Imagine if federal law enforcers spent all the time, money, and attention
that they now devote to an ineffective, repressive war on drugs on understanding
and deterring terrorism. Consider the corrosive effect the drug war has had on
Fourth Amendment freedoms and on foreign policy: Last spring the Bush
administration announced a $40-million gift to Afghanistan's Taliban government
in consideration of its promise to ban opium production. If the administration
wants to prosecute people who aid and abet terrorists, it should turn itself in
immediately. There are evils to blame for the Trade Center attack, as the
president observed, but many of them are domestic.