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Friday, July 29, 2011

Essay on the Finding the Right Balance between National Security and Civil Liberties

On September 11, 2001, several individuals hiding under the cloak of their religion brutally attacked our country.  Weeks after the unfortunate event, the Bush Administration in response to the terrorist attack and to prevent similar events from happening in the future proposed certain bills designed to increase the power of the executive branch (Amitai Etzioni 27).   These anti-terrorism bills were eventually passed into law (Etzioni 28).   

Initially, there was strong public support among Americans and people all over the world for the passage of these anti-terrorism laws.  But a vast segment of the population however expressed their fear and apprehension about its consequences on the privacy, security and liberty of Americans and non-Americans as well (Etzioni 9).  These laws were criticized as steps leading down a slippery slope to a totalitarian rule. 

On the other hand, some say that America is not in a slippery slope.  We have been in this situation before were Americans feared the worst but none of their fears became a reality.  They argue that we are in a recurring pattern in our history.  The pendulum of balance between civil liberty and national security, which has shifted before, swings once again in response to the changes happening in the world. 

The question now is, should there be a dichotomy between civil liberty and national security?  Is it not possible for the Americans to enjoy the blessings and ideals of democracy and at the same time enjoy peace and order? It is my position that there should not be a dichotomy between civil liberty and national security.  It is possible for us to attain safe and free society.  America cannot and should not suspend its civil liberty under any circumstances.  The following are the reasons which will be discussed in this essay: giving broader powers to a handful of persons paves the way for abuses as can be gleaned from our history and restricting civil liberty destroys the very foundation upon which this country was built.   

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Every State is expected to protect its own security and its citizens as well against attacks from within its territory and those forces outside.  The maintenance of peace and order remains as one of its most important duties.  Proponents of anti-terrorism laws argue, however, that there are certain “weaknesses” in our system of government that have prevented the government officials from maintaining peace and order. (Toner 1)  These weaknesses are: the need for presentation of evidence in a criminal case of such a degree that it is beyond reasonable doubt that an accused has committed a crime; the need to secure search warrant before a search is made; the need to secure warrant of arrest before an arrest is made; the need to secure court order before any phone, bank, or internet record, is obtained. (Toner 1) These weaknesses hinder the government officials from protecting our national security. (Los Angeles Times 1)  Thus, there is a need to strengthen the institution by removing these weaknesses.   

This nation is known all over the world for espousing the principles of truth, equality, justice, and freedom.  Other countries emulate the United States.  We are a great nation.  We became a great nation because we respect and protect these principles.  If we will sacrifice these principles then we end up destroying the very foundation which this country rests.    

It must be stressed that the United States is one of the most powerful countries in the world.  It has the resources to anticipate and ward off any attacks against its territory.  We have the personnel and the sophisticated technology to accomplish this task.  Despite these ample powers given to the high-ranking government officials, they failed to deal with it (Bob Barr 1).   Their incompetence led to the loss of thousands of lives and the grief of millions of Americans.  Now the same incompetent people are asking that we surrender our privacy and freedom so that they can effectively perform their function.  I do not think so. 

Since the enactment of anti-terrorism laws after the 9/11 attack, more Americans have realized that that they may have committed a mistake in allowing the government to broaden its powers.  Most have come to the conclusion that sacrificing their civil liberty and privacy for the promise of better national security only gives way to more violations of civil liberties and privacy rights.  History will serve as a proof that those in power have been able to abuse their authority to the destruction of civil liberty.  There have been several instances in our history where the Executive Branch performed some actions which went beyond the powers granted by the US Constitution.  We now consider these events as a stain our history.  We look back at these events as incidences where the US Constitution was not followed and the civil rights and liberties were trampled upon. 

In 1798, the United States, which at that time was in a state of undeclared war with France, enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts prohibiting the publication of false, scandalous or malicious articles against the government.  Many Americans were convicted under the said law.  Thomas Jefferson subsequently pardoned those who have been convicted under this law and restored all the fines they paid with interest which is an indication that the government admitted to have committed a mistake.

In 1861, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus (Toner 2). The writ of habeas corpus is an order issued by a court of law ordering that the body of a prisoner be brought to court so that determination of whether or not the prisoner had been lawfully imprisoned can be had and if he should be released from custody.  As a result of such suspension, more than 38,000 civilians were imprisoned by the military.

During World War I, Pres. Woodrow Wilson, pursuant to Espionage and Sedition Acts, placed behind bars anarchists and pacifists (Toner 3). One of them was Charles Schenck who was convicted of writing and distributing leaflets urging men to resist the military draft.  In 1942, Pres. Roosevelt, pursuant to EO No. 9066, authorized the creation of military areas and ordered the removal of all persons with Japanese ancestry from the west coast for the purpose of protecting United States against espionage and sabotage (Toner 3).  It is estimated that around 110,000 Japanese Americans were held captive and placed in hastily built internment camps which were made of wood and situated in desolate and unsanitary places (Exploring the Japanese American Internment 1).

We need not go way beyond our history to find proof that giving broader powers to selected individuals only leads to more abuses.  Everyday since the 9/11 attack the rights of American citizens are being violated.  One of the serious violations is the sending of National Security Letters (NSL).  According to the Inspector General of the Justice Department, the number of NSLs exponentially increased from 8,500 back in 2000 to 147,000 between 2003 and 2005 (Alexandra Marks 3).  The sending of National Security Letters began in 1978 when Congress allowed the FBI to send such letters to companies to ask for information about the spending habits of people suspected of being foreign spies.  During this time, the companies may refuse to cooperate.  After the 9/11 attack, the Patriot Act gave FBI broader powers giving them authority to obtain information from individuals, whether American or not, so long as the information is relevant to an investigation on terrorism or espionage.  The Patriot Act enhanced the power of FBI to conduct surveillance that they can obtain phone, bank, credit and internet records from different companies (Los Angeles Times 1). Also under the law, the recipients of National Security Letters are forbidden to tell others they have received a letter.

The right to privacy of thousands of Americans and non-Americans are also being violated by virtue of aggressive domestic surveillance of government agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA). (Katherine B. Darmer, R. Baird, and S. Rosenbaum)  After the 9/11 attack, President Bush signed an EO giving the NSA the power to wiretap the overseas communications of people suspected of having contact with Al Qaeda.  As early as 1967, the Supreme Court has ruled that the surveillance of communication falls within the purview of a “search” which under the Fourth Amendment requires search warrant.  In addition, the wiretapping of communication seriously violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which mandates that approval for wiretaps in national-security investigations must be secured from FISA court. 

Not to be forgotten are the numerous incidences of arbitrary detention of individuals who are suspected of having connections with terrorists (Katherine B. Darmer, R. Baird, and S. Rosenbaum).  Individuals like Jose Padilla, Yasser Hamdi, and Ali Saleh al-Marri who have been indefinitely imprisoned and tortured as a means of coercing testimony or eliciting confessions from them. 

The landmark of every democratic society is the freedom and privacy accorded to its citizens.  Every citizen is entitled to privacy in their own houses, papers and things, freedom against unreasonable searches and seizures, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Assembly, and Freedom of Association.  These rights are essential for the enjoyment of our very humanity.  If these most-cherished rights will be sacrificed in the guise of protecting national security, our very humanity will be threatened.  By restricting our civil liberties we in effect have allowed terrorists to win.

Also, our officials have shown that most of them are incompetent in handling the powers given to them. Giving them more powers does not guarantee that they will be able to effective perform their functions.  In function, our history has shown that broad powers in the hands of incompetent individuals can cause serious hardships to the lives of people. 

Our civil liberties should not be blamed for terrorist attacks nor should they be considered hindrance to the effective prosecution and punishment of those who are guilty of acts of terrorism.  The system is built precisely so that the rights of people will be protected against abuses.  Abolishing them or restricting them would mean that the people will be powerless against the mighty powers of the state.  Restricting civil liberties, therefore, is not the solution to maintaining peace and order.  In fact, curtailing and restraining these rights may even lead to more acts of terrorism.  The solution, therefore to the problem of terrorism does not lie in our government officials.  No amount of government surveillance can prevent a determined group of terrorist from executing their plan. There are very few government officials and so many potential terrorists to guard.  The solution, I think, is to educate the people.  The US government should instead launch a campaign that violence is not the proper solution to existing problems.  

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