How democracy is preserved

Civil libertarians claim that John Ashcroft and Co. have endangered our civil liberties since 9/11, as we enter the inevitable assessments around the first anniversary of the attacks.

The American Civil Liberties Union already has pointed to the government's "insatiable appetite" for secrecy, lack of transparency, rejection of equality under the law, and "disdain and outright removal of checks and balances."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont believes the US has been "shredding the Constitution." Others simply maintain that in our efforts to protect ourselves from terrorists we are "doing their job for them," undermining democracy.

They have it all upside down: Democracy is threatened when burning public needs are not addressed. Indeed, evidence shows that as Congress rushed through numerous measures to protect us from terrorism, support for civil liberties in this country has grown stronger, not weaker.

Americans have some direct experience in this matter. In the days when our cities were awash with violent crime, people supported police chiefs like Daryl Gates of Los Angeles, who advocated "street justice" and "shoot first, ask questions later."

At the time, the country favored excessively punitive measures, such as, "Three strikes and you're in jail forever," and preferred to spend money on incarcerating drug abusers rather than on rehabilitation. Since then, as crime subsided, Los Angeles police chiefs have been much more sensitive to individual rights, and the nation moved toward spending less on prisons and more on drug rehabilitation.

Social scientists who study the conditions under which democracy is lost have little to work with.

Democracy – once firmly established – has almost never been lost because of internal developments (as distinct from because of occupation by an invading force).

The one notable exception is the Weimar Republic. What happened there is subject to a much contested literature. However, most agree that following the defeat of Germany in World War I, the people's pride was deeply shaken, and they felt further threatened by massive unemployment and hyperinflation. The Weimar government, weakened by squabbles among numerous parties, corruption, and scandals, was unable to muster an effective response. As a result, "too many Germans did not regard it as a legitimate regime," writes E.J. Feuchtwanger in his book "From Weimar to Hitler."

In short, inaction in the face of threats, not excessive action, killed the Weimar Republic.

A quick change of scenery and decades: Some relevant data come from an event that now seems relatively small, but at the time shook the nation – the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Shortly thereafter, a hefty majority (59 percent) of Americans favored giving up some liberties, an ABC News/Washington Post poll shows. A month later, the numbers began to subside, to 52 percent.

In the period immediately after Sept. 11, people were most willing to support a strong government that would set aside many basic individual rights. However, in the subsequent months, as the government did enhance public safety and no new attacks occurred, the public gradually restored its commitment to the rights-centered, democratic regime.

Two-thirds of Americans were willing to sacrifice some civil liberties to fight terrorism immediately after the 9/11 attacks, according to ABC News/Washington Post. More recently, only 4 in 10 Americans support government steps to prevent terrorism if civil liberties are violated, reported a CNN/USA Today poll.

A growing concern for civil liberties can also be seen in the percentage of Americans who have held that the government went too far in restricting civil liberties to fight terrorism, according to a Newsweek poll. Over time this percentage has remained small, but increased from 8 percent to 12 percent as America experienced no new attacks and numerous new safety measures were introduced.

When Americans were asked about 10 specific safety measures, the picture was completely consistent: While support for safety even at the cost of liberty remained high, it did fall in the six months following the attacks, as fear subsided. For example, 93 percent of Americans supported expanded under-cover activities to penetrate groups under suspicion in September 2001; in March 2002 it fell to 88 percent.

Those favoring closer monitoring of banking and credit cards fell from 8 in 10 in September 2001 to 7 in 10 in March 2002. And support for expanded camera surveillance fell from 63 percent to 58 percent during the same period, according to the Harris poll.

All in all, as far as one can rely on attitudinal data that vary according to how the question is phrased, the data support the thesis that the higher the fear, the greater the willingness to curtail liberty to protect safety. As the government's response seemed effective, fear subsided and support for democracy began to increase again.

The fact that support for strong antiterrorist measures remains high reflects the fact that most of the data were collected within six months of the attack and under frequent warnings about imminent attacks and new threats. The thesis would lead one to expect that if the panic subsides some more, the proportion of those supporting a curtailment of rights will further decline.

This may seem obvious, but it surely is not so obvious to those who hold that democracy is lost by introducing new safety measures that entail some curtailment of rights. These safety measures are core elements of what protects the public and reassures it.

• Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at George Washington University and author of 'The Limits of Privacy' (Basic Books, 1999).

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