Security vs. Liberty

Security vs. Liberty

The 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted a debate over security and liberty, but that debate has been wrongly framed and needlessly divisive.

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“Can We Be Secure and Free?” by Thomas F.
Powers, in
The Public Interest class="text14"> (Spring 2003), 1112 16th St., N.W., Ste. 140,
Washington, D.C. 20036.

The expansion of police powers in America since the
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has civil libertarians crying out
about the loss of liberty—and conservatives invoking the need for
security. But the debate has been wrongly framed and is needlessly
divisive, argues Powers, a political scientist at the University of
Minnesota, Duluth.

The American Civil Liberties Union and kindred groups
have strongly criticized the Bush administration on a number of points,
including “extraordinary detention, the civil rights of noncitizens,
government secrecy, and the treatment of terrorist captives outside the
United States.” But most of the controversy has been about “due
process” issues, Pow­ers says. The biggest concern of civil
liberties advocates is that the 2001 USA Patriot Act and other measures
have made it easier for government agencies “to conduct surveillance,
use wiretaps and searches, obtain access to personal records, and track and
question designated groups,” such as Arab and Muslim non-citizens.

Change in these areas was inevitable, Powers writes.
Terrorism, by bringing war to American soil, and by requiring local police
forces to join the military in what amounts to war fighting, requires fresh
thinking about civil liberties. But by pitting liberty and security against
each other, Powers contends, “the current debate has exaggerated
disagreement and launched a dialectic of mutual recrimination and mistrust,
now elevated to the level of ‘constitutional’ conflict.” The result is “a pointless game of blame-casting that reawakens the
old partisan divisions of the Vietnam era.”

“Liberty” is not threatened only by abuses
of the police and other state agents, and “security” is not
threatened only by criminals and external enemies, Powers points out. As
James Madison, John Locke, and Montesquieu understood, liberty and security
are bound up together. “Every threat, from whatever source, is as
much a threat to our liberty as it is to our security.” To assume a
basic conflict between the two is “to misunderstand the essential
logic of liberal politics,” says Powers. “In a liberal
republic, liberty presupposes security; the point of security is

The current debate should be recast around the need to
balance “one threat to liberty against other threats to liberty, one
threat to security against other threats to security,” he says. That
would not make the difficult choices involved easier, but “it would
permit us to make them more clearly and without fearing that we are being
either unprincipled or softheaded.”

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