The United States is a country unrivalled by none from its beginning for its respect for civil liberties. Indeed the founders of this nation crossed the Atlantic Ocean in such of a place where they would enjoy their liberty without being curtailed by oppressive governments. It is not a wonder that the founding fathers went out of their way to ensure these liberties were guaranteed in the constitution. However whenever the nation has come under a security threat, the citizens have been called upon to sacrifice some of their civil liberties for the sake of security. It all started in 1798 under the leadership of John Adams with the Alien and Sedition Acts legislation when the young nation was at the brink of war with France (Art & Louise, 2006). This Act was motivated by fears of presence of French spies in the United States. The Act gave the President of the United States powers to arrest and deports aliens considered dangerous to the US. It also outlawed publication of materials that were critical of the government.
The second time civil liberties were suspended on security ground happened during the Civil War under the administration of Abraham Lincoln when the Habeas Corpus was suspended (Art & Louise, 2006). The writ of Habeas Corpus makes it illegal to imprison somebody without significant prove of wrongdoing. However history has treated Abraham Lincoln with kindness because of the prevailing conditions then. It again happened during the Second World War when the administration of Franklin Roosevelt established internment camps where Americans of Japanese origins were rounded up due to fear again of existence of Japan sympathizers and spies (Art & Louise, 2006).
The most recent curtailment of civil liberties for security reasons came about through the Patriotic Act passed immediately after the September 11 2001 attack on the U.S. The Patriotic Act has brought the question of security versus enjoyment of civil liberties back to the public domain in a big way. It begs the question of whether terrorist attacks justify any suspension of civil liberties in the name of national security. This paper aims to explore to what extent civil rights should be curtailed for the sake of national security. Whereas the paper will explore arguments on both sides of the divide, it concludes that civil liberties should not be curtailed at any given time in the name of enhancing national security. This is informed by the interrelationship between civil liberties and security, the dual consequence of increasing the powers of the State, consequences of the said increase of State powers in the realm of civil liberties, the long term consequences bearing in mind that once laws are passed they don’t have a timeframe of up to when and the fact that there is no clear measure of whether curtailing civil liberties actually increase national security.
To begin with liberty and security cannot be divorced; a policy that does not give due respect to civil liberties cannot in the same breath legitimately lay a claim in protecting the said rights against terrorist threats. It just does not add up. The interrelationship between civil liberties and security is such that you would need to guarantee people of their civil rights for them to entrust you with their security. It therefore follows that civil liberties cannot be curtailed without threatening national security. The assumption that liberty and security are mutually exclusive is both false and misleading (Cole & Dempsey, 2006). The fact of the matter is that both are mutually reinforcing and therefore one cannot be sacrificed for the other. People who emphasize on national and personal security and the expense of individual freedoms ignore the fact that a democratic government draws its legitimacy from the people and so because partly it is able to guarantee their individual freedoms (Mayer, 2008). The government should devise ways of meeting its constitutional requirement of providing security without curtailing individual freedoms.
Furthermore, civil liberties would lose all their meaning if they are availed at convenience. Simply put the citizens should not enjoy their individual freedoms until there is a terrorist threat but they should do so at all times. That is the beauty of democracy and a duty any worthy government should be able to guarantee. In actual fact to deprive citizens of their civil liberties in order to maintain security is equivalent to handing the victory to the terrorists without firing a bullet (Heymann, 2003). It is admitting that the terrorist have succeeded in changing the way of life for a free people by having their liberty taken away from them by their own government. The war on terrorism will be squarely won when a free people with a democratic government are allowed to continue enjoying their rights uninterrupted and their government protects them from terrorists through other means.
Furthermore terrorist attacks should not be used as a reason to increase the power of the State due to the underlying danger of all-powerful State machinery. The Bill of Rights was formulated by the Founding Fathers to guard individual freedoms against the State excesses among others because they had seen in Europe the dangers of an all-powerful government. Such a government could raid the homes of its citizens without a warrant, confiscate their property without their will and even arrest them without reason. Allowing the government again to have those powers because of a terrorist threat negates all the gains that had been made for over two centuries of constitutionalism. It is taking a big leap backwards. Therefore the effect of increasing powers of the State may be counterproductive leading to the unintended result of rogue State machinery that puts at risk both the terrorist and its own citizens also (Mayer, 2008).
Again the idea of balancing liberty and security when it comes to counterterrorism is based on the philosophy of consequestialism.as proposed by John Stuart Mill (Sottiaux, 2008). The idea is that the individual civil liberties must be curtailed in order to guarantee greater security to the greater community. This idea however can be questioned because it stands on the way of human rights. Furthermore the security of the larger society starts with individual security.
The idea suspending civil liberties because of terrorism threat can also be opposed on the ground that there is no timeframe as to when the liberties so suspended shall be resumed. The suspension mutates into a permanent state which means when citizens agree to lose their liberty due to terrorist threats they should be prepared to do so for good. For example the Patriotic Act passed in 2001 after the September 11 attack may have been thought to be temporary but the truth is it may be around for a long time to come. Furthermore the anti-terrorism measures taken may yield positive results in the short-term but end up increasing the possibility of terrorism attacks in the long-term and therefore threaten the very security they were conceived to guard (Becker, 2006).
Suspension of civil liberties may also lead to a rise of anti-government sentiments among the citizens. This is because the general public may grow resentment against a government that takes away its subjects liberties such as privacy and freedom of movement. According to Mayer (2008), when people live under the fear that State agencies may be monitoring their conversations over the phone, that their premises can be searched without warrant and they can be arrested and locked up without trial, it breeds resentment that may end up creating more terrorists internally. It is noteworthy that some of the terrorists that threaten America’s interest are citizens of the country they are acting against out of anger against their government policies.
Related to this point are the terrorists’ motivating factors. Terrorism in one way grew out of lack of a way of expression. It was born in the Middle East, an area ruled by autocratic monarchs and dictators. These leaders curtailed individual freedoms denying their citizenry a way of expressing themselves. The terrorist acts were directed to the USA because of the support it grants these dictators helping them to hang onto power against their citizens’ wishes. A case in study is Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen that experienced what has been termed as the Arab Spring revolutions against dictators the USA has long supported. The Patriotic Act passed in the aftermath of September 11 may end up boiling resentment among the citizens against their government leading to more dangerous homegrown terrorist out of frustration of an all-powerful government. Other motivating factors for terrorist include personal and cultural humiliation as well as social pressures (Cole and Lobel, 2008). It is these motivating factors that should concern authorities other than suspending civil liberties.
Finally the premise that civil liberties should be balanced against national security can be dismissed on practical grounds. Supposing civil liberties can be balanced against security, where is the dividing line? How can we measure the effectiveness of curtailing civil liberties on terrorism prevention? Did the Patriot Act increase security in the aftermath of 9/11 or did it merely reduce liberty? These are patent questions that cannot find direct answers. The answers to these questions will depend on individual opinions or the side of the political divide one inclines to. According to Cole and Lobel (2008), the Patriotic Act and other post 9/11 policies did not increase the security of the American citizens but rather took away their freedoms. That left the US less secure and less free.
While it is agreeable that individual civil liberties should not stand in the way of government agencies tasked with providing security, civil liberties ought to be enjoyed at all times and not only in the convenience of peace. The true character of democracy will not be known in times of convenience but by how it behaves in times of crisis. Rights would lose their true meaning if they are to be exercised at the whims of the State. Furthermore civil liberties should not be taken as a threat to security but rather as a means towards security.