Civil liberties in times of war

Posted: Dec 12, 2001 12:00 AM
With the administration's broad anti-terrorist measures came painful groans from the left about how the president was paring away our civil rights. And with the revelations that Attorney General John Ashcroft has detained more than 600 foreigners on immigration charges and that the administration supports military tribunals to try war criminals, the debate has gone nova. The infighting leads to an interesting paradox. Should we peel back our own civil liberties in an effort to prevent terrorists from further damaging our free society? If we do so, have we sacrificed the very quality that animates our free society with meaning? Lefty types are inclined to believe that, by altering our civil liberties, we hand the terrorist victory. In effect, we damage our free society for them. Philosophically, they find this indigestible. To which I would offer a common sense response - we are at war! Or, as Attorney General Ashcroft put it: "We remain in a situation where there is a significant threat of additional terrorist activity," Get it? Terrorist cells continue to stalk the streets of our free country. That's the reality. Closing our eyes to this fact - on lofty philosophical grounds - gives those terrorists a horrible opportunity to kill even more Americans. Somehow these rousing points have eluded the lefty types. They stick to their philosophical mantras about how all civil liberties are always beyond pragmatism. "Our history demonstrates clearly that unbridled power in a time of national crisis leads to abuses and to abridgement of our civil liberties," warned a press release from The People United for the American Way. Meanwhile, people are getting exposed to anthrax via the mail, the FBI is issuing regular alerts about additional attacks and the thousands of Americans trapped in the Pentagon and World Trade Center on Sept. 11 are still dead! These rousing facts ought to shock the lefty philosophers out of their old mantras and get them to focus instead on the very practical ways that we can work to keep our society safe. A good start would be to realize that we cannot place romantic, libertarian ideals ahead of the security of the country. This does not mean ripping the Constitution to shreds. It does mean detaining the small number of people in this country who have violated their visas. It means taking reasonable steps to prevent these detainees from communicating coded instructions to field operatives. It also means employing military tribunals for the very practical reasons of keeping our intelligence information secret. "I agree we have taken steps here that represent a departure from what we have done in recent times,' said Michael Chertoff, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's criminal division. "We are not in recent times. Are we being aggressive and hard-nosed? You bet." While such aggressive measures may not be able to eradicate terrorism altogether, they will make it more difficult for terrorists to kill Americans. So I vote yes for giving the government latitude during these extraordinary circumstances and yes to saving more Americans. What's wrong with that?
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