Sunday, September 10, 2006

Security vs. Liberty

On the eve of the 5th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks there is quite a bit of discussion in the press about civil liberties and security. I just have one observation that I think has been overlooked in all of this discussion: it's a false tradeoff.

Specifically, there's nothing inherently wrong with wiretapping - even wiretapping of Americans - when there is suspicion of illegal activity, especially terrorism. Or of using aggressive interrogation tactics, or of doing data mining and the like. Bush is absolutely right about that, and I think that any civil libertarian (of which I count myself) that claims that these tactics are inherently problematic is being blinded by ideology.

Score one for Bush. But now score one for the civil libertarians and against Bush: these tactics MUST be done in a context of lawfullness and accountability, and Bush has studiously resisted any attempt to do this. If FISA, for example, is too burdensome to effectively counter terrorism, then the answer is not to go around FISA. After all, going around the law is something that dictators do, or it is something that a president can do after suspending civil liberties - something that has in fact been done in wartimes past but which Bush has declined to do. Instead of going around FISA, the right thing to do is to get updated legislation passed that will provide the efficiency and speed needed (that the administration claims FISA lacks) while providing the checks/balances/accountability that the population need. I have no plausible explanation for why Bush - whose party controls both houses of congress - has not even tried to do this.

Demanding accountability from our government does not mean being weak on terrorism, it means being strong on the very freedom that we are trying to protect. I for one would hate to gain security at the expense of losing freedom to my own government, and I think anyone who claims that demands for accountability and checks/balances weakens security is playing politics in a disingenuous, dangerous, and destructive manner.

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