The Price of Security

Preserving Civil Liberties



Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were designed to strike at more than just American lives and property, although that goal was accomplished with horrible efficiency. The perpetrators aimed their airplanes-turned-guided missiles into the very heart of an American ethos: catholic openness and freedom. Their success in exploiting America's greatest strength and its greatest liability has caused Americans to reexamine the openness of their society.

Over the coming months the nation will look to strike back against those guilty of this grievous assault. During that time, the government must strive to accomplish the almost paradoxical goal of using all necessary and proper means to protect citizens and apprehend the guilty while refraining from persecuting the innocent and inappropriately expanding its powers at the expense of American civil liberties.

The haunting images burned into the American psyche of collapsed buildings and people struggling for air on soot-choked streets should make the idea of convenience in certain situations an errant ideal, to which most Americans agree. An overwhelming number polled in the past week expressed their willingness to wait hours in line and submit to extensive baggage checks in exchange for safer air travel.

Clearly, any policy changes should start where all this began - at the nation's airports. Internal security on each plane flying into and over American air space needs to be strengthened, given reports that the hijackers overpowered the crews and gained access to the cockpits with mere box cutters. Most changes are common sense: ban all blades on all flights, reinforce the cockpit doors to enable them to withstand a forced entry, and as a regrettable sign of the times, place federal air marshals on flights to protect against attempted hijacking. Airport security should be enhanced as well, with policies in place to search all passengers' belongings for weapons or explosives, not only a few randomly selected travelers.

We must work to enhance security in public arenas as many of our fellow nations have already done. In the United Kingdom, for example, authorities have placed video cameras in all public places in order to identify suspected terrorists and record their activity. After a recent car bombing in Great Britain, the cameras captured the image of the attacker, allowing authorities to release it to the public shortly thereafter. While the idea of being watched on the street is unpleasant, the idea of massive death and destruction is even more so.

Seven out of 10 Americans are willing to support counter terrorism measures even if they erode civil liberties. While the current situation is grave, times are not so desperate where we need to consider such extreme forms of protection. Random wire taps, invasion of private e-mail documents, weakening of standards for search warrants - all would serve no function except to invade the people's privacy and create a mammoth, intrusive bureaucracy dedicated to processing this information without any certainty of apprehending would-be terrorists.

Of particular concern is any form of racial profiling based on arbitrary factors such as ethnicity or religion that authorities may be tempted to use in the coming desperate times. While individuals committing suspicious actions should be monitored by authorities, no person should be an automatic suspect based on his skin color or accent. A shame similar to what happened to Japanese-Americans during WWII must not be repeated. If it does, the terrorists will have taken not just lives, but a part of what makes America beautifully unique.