In the "war on terrorism, " the United States and its citizens are playing catch-up. That is why last Monday's (Nov. 18) ruling by a special federal appeals court - which said that the Justice Department has broad powers to go after suspected terrorists - is significant, necessary and welcome.
Like many of my friends on the left, and some on the right, I worry about overreaching and intrusive government when it comes to snooping on private communication. Yet, like the football team that spots its opponent a big lead (or Hitler who got a head start ravaging Europe before Britain and the United States intervened), we have a lot of lost ground to make up and little time in which to do it.
The special appeals court ruled that the Justice Department is allowed, under the Patriot Act, to use wiretaps obtained for intelligence operations to prosecute terrorists. Since the 9/11 hijackers used e-mail and telephones to plan and execute their deadly attack, unshackling law enforcement to go after their comrades with every tool available is more likely to protect our citizens and make it more difficult for terrorists to kill us. Prevention sure beats prosecution after the fact, especially when they are homicidal bombers, hard to catch this side of hell.
Most Americans would probably favor a more aggressive and empowered federal government if it lessens the likelihood of further terrorism. The niceties of civil liberties appear to have been lost on the 9/11 hijackers and the countries from which they came. Wartime rules must be different from those in peacetime.
"A Green Light to Spy " headlined a New York Times editorial that opposed the ruling and urged Congress to clarify the Patriot Act. The Times wants Congress to step in and restrict the government from doing what the appeals court said it may do. That is unlikely to happen. Besides, the court ruling isn't a green light. It is a yellow light, and the government should proceed with caution while citizens, the press and the courts carefully monitor its progress.
Similarly, a Washington Post editorial asserted the court ruling means we are "chipping away at liberty. " It is more likely we will be chipping away at terrorism.
Since 9/11, we have been appalled at how easily the terrorists managed to invade our nation, live in our communities and attack us. From the State Department, which issued them visas, to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which failed to go after them when many violated the provisions of their admission, to the FBI, which ignored warnings from its own agents, to flight instructors at FAA-approved schools, who thought little or nothing of accepting cash from Middle Eastern men who wanted to learn to take off in jumbo jets but not land, our government failed miserably to protect us. Having been jolted from our apathetic state, we would be doubly foolish not to do everything possible to make up for the head start they have in this war.
We have unknown hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people living among us whose objective is to undermine our government and the liberties we celebrate. One of the reasons we have had a lenient immigration policy toward those nations that bear us ill will is our uninformed and naive belief that once they see how wonderfully free we are, they will "convert " and become advocates of and participants in democracy. That may work for some Communists, but it won't work with terrorists, who use our good intentions against us.
Inattention to one's health can produce diseases that require radical surgery instead of the easier treatments that accompany early detection. If we must pay an uncomfortable price of wiretaps and e-mail interceptions because we refused to heed the early warning signs, so be it. It beats the alternative of nerve gas in subways, poisoned water supplies and explosions, which would cause thousands of additional deaths.
Ask yourself whether you would prefer the government doing what must be done to better protect us, or whether you prefer that an ACLU lawyer, the Washington Post and the New York Times feel good. For most Americans, I suspect this won't be a close call.