by Bob Barr
Throughout U.S. history, the American people have balanced liberty and security. Finding the right mix isn’t always easy. But policy-makers must never forget that they are duty-bound to protect a free society.
Government had ample powers before 9/11 to deal with terrorism in a manner consistent with the Bill of Rights. If we needlessly sacrifice the liberties that make America great, we, in the manner of Esau, will have sold our national soul for a mess of pottage.
September 11 wasn’t the first time in U.S. history that the American people sacrificed their freedoms and allowed the government to seize extraordinary powers. Shortly after the American Revolution, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, allowing the federal government to jail its critics.
Habeas corpus was suspended during the Civil War, and the federal government prosecuted political opponents. Civil liberties were widely violated during World War I; then came the “Red Scare” and so-called Palmer Raids.
World War II spawned the internment of Japanese-Americans. Surveillance of domestic political opponents occurred during the Cold War.
In all of these cases, Americans eventually realized that they had sacrificed liberty without gaining security in return. Decisions were overturned, powers were rescinded, and accountability was re-established.
As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned in Olmstead vs. United States in 1928, “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent.” Although we usually are vigilant against “evil-minded rulers,” Brandeis added, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
So it was in the aftermath of 9/11. Americans feared another attack and therefore acquiesced to an unprecedented power grab by the federal government. This unprecedented expansion of government authority threatens to allow the false promise of security to permanently trump America’s historic commitment to liberty.
The “War on Terrorism” is the first conflict since the Civil War in which the American homeland is a battleground. Thus, the president claims the right to decide when the rules of war will govern domestic civilian society.
Moreover, for the first time in our history we are fighting a conflict that has no apparent end. We knew when we had defeated Germany and Japan in World War II, but history suggests there will always be terrorists. It is a never-ending war in an undefined and unlimited battlefield.
We cannot allow America’s dearly bought freedoms to be so easily lost.
Liberty is far more than just a bank account, e-mail or Social Security number. Liberty defines a free people. It is our birthright to keep personal affairs private from others, and especially from the government. It is our constitutional right not to have our privacy invaded and evidence gathered against us without the government having a good reason for doing so and securing a warrant. It also is our constitutional birthright not to be arrested except through the due process of law. And it is our duty to hold those who exercise power accountable for their actions.
This is not a liberal issue or a conservative issue. It is an American issue.
After 9/11, Americans heard a familiar refrain: “You must give up a little privacy, a few liberties, in order to have security.” After all, it was said, “if you have nothing to hide, there is no reason to be concerned.”
Anyway, we were told, we faced a new kind of enemy, one never contemplated by America’s Founders. Only with new powers could the government combat these new threats.
But the dichotomy of liberty versus security is false. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 did not succeed because government was too weak. Rather, public officials did not use their existing powers and did not competently perform their duties. Giving these same officials new, unfettered and unreviewable powers has not made America more secure. Indeed, the U.S. has lost moral standing around the globe, making us more vulnerable to foreign threats.
The Founding Fathers well anticipated the world in which we live. They recognized that power corrupts and could spur even the most well-meaning public officials to invade the liberties of the people.
At the same time, those who created the new nation understood the need to preserve liberty in a dangerous world. America was birthed out of revolution against Great Britain, the most powerful empire on earth. In its early years, the United States also was threatened by France and Spain. Despite such clear and present dangers, the Framers deliberately limited the authority of government and ensured the accountability of public officials.
Liberty is not an afterthought, but the very essence of our civilization. The philosopher Ayn Rand spoke of “the process of setting man free from men.” Our Founding Fathers understood that. The Bill of Rights protects it.
But the current administration and many others, including Sen. John McCain, appear to disdain it. Only the American people can truly re-establish our society’s foundation of freedom. That is the American Solution.
Bob Barr is the Libertarian Party candidate for President and a former member of Congress from Georgia.