For now, security trumps liberties

Amid heightened security, some worry about erosion of freedom.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At times like this, a democracy must balance its need to protect itself with the freedoms that define it. Last week's terrorist attacks have raised the debate pitting homeland defense against civil liberties to a level not seen since World War II.

In the days since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the US Senate has passed a bill allowing enhanced police wiretap powers and more widespread use of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Carnivore" Internet-surveillance system. The number of businesses conducting criminal background checks on employees has shot up. Congress is pushing more now to ban encryption products, legitimately used to protect business secrets, but also available as a tool by terrorists and other lawbreakers.

Calls for racial and ethnic profiling in the name of domestic security are also increasing, as well as legislative proposals that would make it easier for government agencies to keep secrets. And there is likely to be expanded use of "face-recognition software" to scan everyday crowds for suspected criminals. Attorney General John Ashcroft says he wants to make it easier to detain foreigners, to wiretap phones, and to track money laundering.

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Warren Goldstein, an American-history professor at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, predicts that government agencies will begin scanning subscription lists for magazines, newspapers, and journals, as well as watching online book purchases. "I think we're going to return with far greater electronic powers of surveillance to the kinds of things which were commonplace in the 1950s," he says.

Private businesses and organizations are also likely to increase their scrutiny of civilians.

Robert Mather, president of Pre-employ.com, Inc. in Redding, Calif., reports a doubling of calls from employers who want to conduct criminal background checks on employees. "In the past, it was mainly new hires that were checked," says Mr. Mather. "Many executives are now looking closely at their current policy and procedures and including current employees."

There's a historical pattern here. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended writs of habeas corpus, part of the due process for criminal defendants. After World War I, suspected anarchists were arrested without warrant, and immigrants were deported. During World War II, 77,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned for the duration of the war solely because of their race. During the cold war, it was illegal to teach communism. And after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, new legislation allowed the use of secret evidence to deport people.

In retrospect, some of those acts were seen to have been wrong -legally questionable, if not unconstitutional - and based on unfounded fears.

Today, the President and congressional leaders say the United States is at "war." But how willingly will Americans accept what could be the greatest impositions on their freedoms and the greatest level of government intrusiveness most of them have ever seen?

With images of mass destruction and loss life seared into their consciousness, most seem willing to shift in the direction of heightened security. An ABC-Washington Post poll last week showed that 66 percent of Americans would give up some civil liberties to fight terrorism. The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll puts the figure at 74 percent.

"It's generally true, over the ages, that if you ask people to choose between freedom and security, they will choose security," says Clark McCauley, a psychology professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

Still, there is a difference between mere inconveniences and more-intrusive measures. While 86 percent in the New York Times/CBS Poll said they wouldn't mind guards and metal detectors at public buildings and events, and 69 percent said they'd be willing to arrive three hours early for a domestic-airline flight, only 39 percent said they would willingly allow government monitoring of their telephone calls and e-mail messages.

That's still a figure that troubles some. "That means that there are 39 percent of the American people who would allow a level of governmental intrusion that you only have in American prisons or in the military during wartime," says Dr. Goldstein.

Meanwhile, lawmakers across the political spectrum -from conservative Senate minority leader Trent Lott (R) of Miss. to liberal Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Mass. -approve of increased security measures that could impinge on personal liberties.

Last year, following a recent pattern of attacks on Americans abroad, the National Commission on Terrorism recommended that "the Attorney General should ensure that the FBI is exercising fully its authority for investigating suspected terrorist groups or individuals, including authority for electronic surveillance."

Still, there is growing concern that something fundamental to the US could be lost here. Some look at the "war on drugs" and wonder whether "collateral damage" there -racial profiling, police breaking into the wrong house, people mistakenly killed -is being sufficiently considered.

"Maybe the Senate wants to just go ahead and adopt new abilities to wiretap our citizens," says Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Maybe they want to adopt new abilities to go into people's computers. Maybe that will make us feel safer. Maybe. And maybe what the terrorists have done made us a little bit less safe."

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