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Debate on Security vs Freedom Ensues - 2001-09-21


The United States is looking for ways to prevent future terrorist incidents, including implementing new laws that tighten public security and give authorities increased law enforcement abilities. But some people are concerned that such restrictions aimed at enhanced safety may erode some of the freedoms that are the hallmark of American society.

The U.S. government is preparing new legislation designed to enhance the ability of law enforcement officials to crack down on possible terrorists. Attorney General John Ashcroft says he wants to expand the government's authority for electronic surveillance, wiretapping, and physical searches. In addition, the government wants to expand its power to detain immigrants suspected of crimes and to seize the assets of suspected terrorist groups.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many Americans are pleased the government is trying to make their lives more secure. But some are concerned about the possible erosion of their freedoms as provided by the amendments to the Constitution.

Robert Drinan, a Roman Catholic Priest and a former member of Congress, says he has deep misgivings about some of the impending changes in the law. "We must remember that the founders were very wise people, and they put in the fourth amendment that says there shall be no unreasonable searches and seizures, and the fifth amendment saying that no one should be required to testify against themselves," he said. "Those two amendments have been developed in American law for 200 years, and I think that now is the time to remain firm. Those are the pillars of American civil liberties."

Attorney General Ashcroft says finding and prosecuting terrorists should be a top priority of the United States right now. But he says he is also mindful of the need to protect Americans' constitutional rights and their privacy. "We're going to do everything we can to harmonize the constitutional rights of individuals with every legal capacity we can muster to also protect the safety and security of individuals," he said. "It's with that in mind that we would evaluate any potential changes in the law."

Nadine Strossen, national president of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City, says she is concerned that Americans are being asked to sacrifice fundamental liberties on what she calls the mere assertion that doing so is necessary to fight terrorism. "I certainly am profoundly distressed by the terrible tragedy that happened just a few blocks from where I work and where the ACLU is located and share everybody's commitment to - as President Bush said - bring the perpetrators to justice," she said. "But as President Bush and other national leaders have consistently said, we cannot allow the terrorists to terrorize us into sacrificing liberties."

Ms. Strossen says the administration and the congress should proceed deliberately and not in haste as they look for ways to tackle the problem of terrorism. Professor Michael Seidman, a specialist on constitutional law and criminal procedures at Georgetown University Law Center, says Americans are divided on this issue. "There's no doubt that the political environment has changed dramatically within a week's time and that there are very strong pressures for increased surveillance, for even things like racial profiling that a week ago would have been pretty widely denounced," he said. "So, there's been some change. At the same time, there is a lingering sense that people remember in times of crisis in the past we've sometimes done some things that we've regretted."

For example, Mr. Seidman notes the United States rounded up 130,000 Japanese Americans during World War II and sent them to internment camps. "There might be things permanently lost that we would regret losing if we're not thoughtful about the way we respond," he said. "I mean a sense of privacy, the ability to protect a sphere where things are kept secret. That's part of it. Another part of it is freedom of movement, the ability to go where you want without being harassed or without having to answer to public authorities."

Professor Seidman says Americans should be careful not to be swept away by emotions. Professor Seidman says Attorney General Ashcroft is right in saying a balance must be found - that there is a trade-off between law enforcement and privacy. "It's not written in stone that the current balance has to be the balance for all time," said Professor Seidman. "I think that the concern that people have is what's sometimes called a slippery slope argument, that we might, without quite realizing that we're doing it, gradually drift into a police state and that we would wake up one morning and we would discover that bit by bit we have given up things that we now regret having given up."

In addition, Mr. Seidman says there is a concern that the new restrictions will not affect everyone equally, but are likely to be especially difficult for people from the Middle East or those who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent. He says the vast majority of immigrants are law abiding, and it would be wrong if the majority are harassed because of a small number who cause problems.

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