Terrorism and Our Democracy

The first casualty of war is said to be truth, and a close second is civil liberty. As we necessarily become more alert to terrorist threats, we should be just as vigilant of our own liberties as Americans. If the defense against terrorism makes us a police state, terror will have won.

America is now a different country. But even in a world where every American is a potential target, it's possible to have higher levels of security without sacrificing basic liberty.

Europe takes airport security far more seriously than we do, but still maintains functioning democracies. Even Israel's state airline, El Al, keeps its planes flying safely, with meticulous inspections, armed guards, and anti-terror training.

The risk now is that the Bush administration will sponsor needless assaults on our liberties, and still not make America invulnerable to attack. The new wave of brazen terror gives license to the most retrograde people in the national security establishment--people for whom civil liberty means security risk.

Brace yourself for sweeping plans for expanded electronic surveillance; security cordons around public spaces; more random searches of ordinary citizens; limits on peaceful protest; ethnic profiling; and star-chamber treatment for people accused of associating with terrorists.

Even without these new threats, recent presidents have been cavalier about civil liberty. Under Clinton, legislation passed taking away due-process rights of immigrants and restricting the right of habeas corpus, and the government resorted to summary justice in the form of property seizures.

Throughout our history war has narrowed liberty, often to excess. Right after the American revolution, we had the Sedition Act. During World War I, authorities rounded up people suspected of pacifist sympathies. In World War II, we indiscriminately incarcerated American citizens of Japanese ancestry; and during the Cold War, we had McCarthy purges. None of this was necessary to prosecute wars; all of it made us less of a free country.

We certainly need far better airport security, better border security, and tighter security around facilities that are easy targets. We also need better foreign intelligence.

But unless we want to throw away our own liberties, America can never have perfect security. Bombs can be built from common materials. People willing to commit suicide in the process will always be able to do damage. Yesterday, I took Amtrak from Washington to Boston. There was no metal detector, no nothing. I could have been carrying a tactical nuke.

Yet we ought to able to protect our transportation hubs without sacrificing an open society. It may not be possible to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and all his commandos, but the September 11 attack was successful only because of a spectacular breach of airport security.

European airports operate security as a coherent, government-operated system. Our airport security operations are haphazard, privatized and easily outwitted. America's airport security guards, mostly contract employees of security companies, are underpaid, undertrained, overwhelmed and more stage-props than a genuine safeguard.

The instant ban on curbside check-ins epitomizes the government's helter-skelter, panicky reaction. Our airline security system needs to rebuilt from the bottom up, not jury-rigged. And unless we want to hire half of America to monitor the other half, we can never guarantee that every automobile is not carrying a bomb.

U.S. air travelers get too much inefficient delay and not enough protection. We need to upgrade this security system--yet not become a garrison state.

On September 28, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank plan their annual meetings in Washington. Mass protest is planned against these institutions' austerity policies. A splinter group vows violence. Even before the recent devastation, authorities planning for the event were attempting to cordon off half of downtown Washington. We will soon find out whether threats of terror will coexist with the constitutional right of peaceful assembly.

Ironically, the protestors will be challenging conventional ideas about globalization. The nation-state is said to be passe and the new world order a single, global community with free movement of capital, commerce, products and persons. But we've just had a gruesome wake-up call. In fact, the nation-state provides our security and defines our rights as citizens. Our nation-state--and its constitutional liberties--is what makes America as a political community different from Afghanistan. Anyone who thinks the U.S. should have open borders has another thing coming.

It is possible for America to become more secure, with modest inconvenience but without major assaults on our freedoms. I wish I had more confidence that George W. Bush will get this balance right.

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