One of the major questions in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America is what effects the U.S. war on terror will have on Americans’ civil liberties. Within days of the attacks, some pundits and public officials began calling for expanded police, FBI, and CIA powers to combat future attacks. They were quickly answered by commentators who warned that to turn the United States into a police state would be to give the enemies of democracy a partial victory. “If we are intimidated to the point of restricting our freedoms, the terrorists will have won,” said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) executive director Anthony D. Romero in January 2002.
History shows that curtailment of civil liberties—including the right to free speech, the right to a fair trial, and the right to equal protection under the law— has often followed national crises. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeus corpus on several occasions, holding suspected traitors without trial even though only Congress can authorize such action. During World War I, more than 1,100 people were jailed or fined under the Sedition Act, which essentially made it a crime to criticize the government or the war effort. The law was later declared unconstitutional. In 1918, a series of strikes, riots, and bombings culminated in the Palmer raids: Gross civil liberties violations ensued as law enforcement officials led raids on suspected radicals in dozens of cities, arresting more than 6,000 people, many without a warrant.
After September 11, a consensus emerged that, as much as possible, the war on terrorism should be waged without the civil liberties violations that have occurred in prior crises. For example, one of the nations’ worst overreactions to a national emergency occurred after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. government evacuated more than 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast and held them in internment camps. In the wake of September 11, U.S. leaders took active steps to avoid a similar episode. “How different [from the atmosphere after the attack on Pearl Harbor],” writes Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe, “was the sight of New York’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, soon followed by President Bush, appealing eloquently to Americans not to seek revenge on their fellow citizens who happened to be Muslims.”
Nevertheless, Americans’ civil liberties will surely be affected by the aftermath of September 11. Some substantial changes have already been made. A bill called the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001—also known as the Patriot Act—was passed by Congress late in 2001 to help the antiterrorism effort. Among other things, the law:
• allows the government to detain any foreigners whom the attorney general has “reasonable grounds to believe” might be a threat to national security.
• eases officials’ ability to eavesdrop on communications between lawyers and their clients in federal custody when it would “deter future acts of violence or terrorism.”
• expands federal agents’ power to conduct telephone and e-mail surveillance.
• enhances the ability of federal agents to conduct “sneak-and-peek” searches, in which agents search an individual’s home without notifying them.
President George Bush has also, through an executive order, authorized the use of military tribunals—in which defendants are stripped of many traditional legal protections—to try suspected terrorists.
While most of these curtailments on civil liberties are directed at suspected terrorists, average Americans may be affected in other, less direct ways. For example, a wartime atmosphere has historically had a chilling effect on free expression. In a widely publicized case, the University of New Mexico disciplined a history professor for jokingly telling a class on September 11 that “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote.” And more than a dozen ABC affiliates pulled comedian Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect talk show after Maher remarked on September 17 that “we have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” referring to U.S. bombings of Iraq since the Persian Gulf War. “That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane while it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” Civil libertarians worry that incidents like these will create an atmosphere in which people are afraid to criticize the government.
The right to privacy may also be compromised, as law enforcement agencies intensify their efforts to identify and track suspicious individuals. Airline travelers have submitted to more frequent random searches, although proposals to issue national ID cards have met with substantial public opposition. Facial recognition technology systems—which use surveillance cameras and a computer database of photographs to identify individuals in a crowd—have already been installed in several airports, and there have been proposals to implement retinalscan technology as well. Critics of this increased surveillance have compared it to George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, which depicts a totalitarian society in which “Big Brother”—the government—is always watching. Security experts, on the other hand, insist that such measures are necessary and that they will not be abused.
In the end, the intense debate over the effects of antiterrorism efforts on civil liberties may itself be the best sign that Americans’ constitutional rights will survive the current crisis. History shows that civil liberties are often abused in times of national crisis, but it also shows that civil liberties have survived those crises. The viewpoints in Current Controversies: Civil Liberties debate the importance of civil liberties and the potential threats to them in the following chapters: Should Limits Be Placed on Freedom of Expression? Does Separation of Church and State Threaten Religious Liberty? Is the Right to Privacy Threatened? Does the Threat of Terrorism Justify Curtailment of Civil Liberties? The wide range of opinions in these chapters demonstrates that while Americans as a whole cherish the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution, they hold strong and differing views on how those freedoms should be exercised and whether or not they should be restricted.
Did this raise a question for you?