Liberties must not be sacrificed

As rescue crews continue their efforts, Americans are gearing up for the war against terrorism the president has promised. For the first time since the day of infamy, the United States faces an active, dedicated enemy with the capacity to bring devastation to every part of the nation, and if the patriotic heroism shown thus far is any indication, a free people is rallying to the challenge.

But history shows us our national pride can be quickly turned into paranoia just as damaging to our freedom as any terrorist plot, and the nation’s citizens and leaders should respond to the terrorist threat without sacrificing the liberties for which so many are willing to fight. As Thomas Jefferson remarked, “Those who can sacrifice essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither.”

Yet America in crisis has rarely heeded Jefferson’s words. The ignoble list is familiar: the Alien and Sedition acts, Civil War-era martial law, the 1920s anarchist scare, the internment of Japanese Americans, McCarthyism, and the FBI’s 1960s harassment campaigns.

And we continue to allow new suspensions of rights. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress’ anti-terrorism bill contained provisions expanding government wiretap authority and allowing federal officials prosecuting deportation cases to present evidence and argue motions in closed hearings at which defendants and their attorneys are not allowed.

Within hours of Tuesday’s attacks, federal agents descended upon America Online, EarthLink, Yahoo and Microsoft, demanding information about their subscribers; the service provider for Rage Against the Machine’s bulletin board shut it down because a single e-mail raised flags with the Secret Service. As this war continues, especially if terrorist attacks escalate, we will see proposals for restrictions leaders in crisis times regularly resort to: random public I.D. checks, detention of citizens without charges, limits on the freedom of association.

But we are Americans, and we know diminished freedom is not a necessary price for protection from enemies. A war against terrorists cannot be allowed to become a war against the freedoms the war is waged to protect. We are seriously mistaken if we ask the government to treat every American as a possible terrorist. If we turn against each other, if we lose confidence in the value of American liberties, if we stop believing this nation’s bold experiment is something so unique that a handful of terrorists cannot shake its foundations, then we hand the terrorists their greatest victory because we reveal our culture and history as merely a thin veneer of high-minded rhetoric.

But we know from history – and from this past week – that the American nation and its people are strong. One can only hope we are strong enough to direct our own patriotic energies.