How the Terrorist Crisis Threatens our Personal Liberties

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
-- Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

At some level of danger to life and property, even people strongly committed to civil liberties -- and not everyone is -- are prepared to sacrifice some privacy, freedom of movement, and convenience to greater security.
-- Harvard Law School professor Philip B. Heymann, Boston Globe, 9/15/01

On Tuesday, September 11, not long after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, John Perry Barlow sent a message to the nearly 1000 people who regularly receive his "BarlowFriendz" e-mails. The contents were what might be called typical Barlow at an atypical moment. A well-known Internet libertarian and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Barlow was not about to temper himself, even during those first awful, horrifying hours.

"This morning's events are roughly equivalent to the Reichstag fire that provided the social opportunity for the Nazi take-over of Germany," Barlow wrote. "I am *not* suggesting that, like the Nazis, the authoritarian forces in America actually had a direct role in perpetrating this mind-blistering tragedy.... Nevertheless, nothing could serve those who believe that American 'safety' is more important than American liberty better than something like this. Control freaks will dine on this day for the rest of our lives." He closed with this: "And, please, let us try to forgive those who have committed these appalling crimes. If we hate them, we will become them."

Barlow's message was many things: overwrought and outrageous, to be sure, but also important -- even prescient, given the fearful, censorious atmosphere that has wrapped around us like a thick blanket during the past two weeks, both comforting and suffocating. As Barlow quickly learned, it also became a prime target for precisely the kind of authoritarianism he'd warned of. "Merely by calling for forgiveness for the bombers," he said, "I've received a death threat. I've received some extremely ugly e-mail." People who e-mailed him to say they agreed with him, he adds, were quick to interject that they didn't want to be identified.

"This is what totalitarianism is really about," Barlow says. "It's not the imposition of dictatorial will on a population by a dictator, it's the imposition of dictatorial will on a population by the population itself. Not that it's going to stop me, but in much of America right now, it takes a lot of courage to speak your mind if you're not willing to go to war against whoever the enemy might be."

The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. To that extent, at least, the hijackers have won a temporary victory. Surveys taken in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington show that though Benjamin Franklin may have eloquently stated the American ideal, Philip Heymann -- and John Barlow -- have a better sense of the public mood. In the current environment, people are all too willing to give up their "essential liberty. "

Take, for instance, a poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post on September 13, in which 92 percent of respondents said they would support "new laws that would make it easier for the FBI and other authorities to investigate people they suspect of involvement in terrorism." More ominously, support dropped only slightly, to 71 percent, when people were asked whether they were prepared to give up "some of Americans' personal liberties and privacy."

Another poll, conducted by CBS News and the New York Times on September 13 and 14, found much the same thing. By a margin of 74 percent to 21 percent, respondents agreed that "Americans will have to give up some of their personal freedoms in order to make the country safe from terrorist attacks." Even when asked whether they would be "willing or not willing to allow government agencies to monitor the telephone calls and e-mail of ordinary Americans on a regular basis," an eye-catching 39 percent were willing, and 53 percent were not -- hardly a ringing affirmation of the right to be left alone. And it gets worse: this week, a poll by the Siena College Research Institute found that one-third of New Yorkers would favor internment camps for "individuals who authorities identify as being sympathetic to terrorist causes."

Civil liberties are in grave danger today, perhaps as they have been at no other time in our history. The "war" metaphor President Bush has chosen to describe the events of September is apt, given the seriousness and deadliness of the attack against us. But, as many others have observed, it is a war of a very different kind, with no clearly defined enemy, no hard-and-fast objective, no obvious endpoint -- a miasma pervaded by paranoia and suspicion. In that kind of atmosphere, the spirit of freedom -- which always takes a beating during wartime -- is fragile and vulnerable.

Though government officials from the president and Attorney General John Ashcroft on down have paid lip service to civil liberties, and though the media have focused on the fate of freedom with unusual vigor and perseverance, the news coming out of Washington, and from across the country, is chilling. Repressive new immigration and wiretapping laws are under consideration in Congress. Arab-Americans are being harassed and attacked. Music is being censored. Television personalities are apologizing for speaking their minds.

No sane person would object to more-stringent security at airports -- although such common-sense steps as installing better doors to protect pilots from terrorists would do more than screening passengers who look vaguely Arab, or banning plastic knives. Trampling on the Constitution is another thing altogether.

In a mind-boggling column for the New York Post last week in which he labeled foreign-born Middle Easterners a potential "fifth column," John Podhoretz wrote: "Leftist civil libertarians and right-wing anti-government types can do their part ... to protect Muslims and Arab-Americans -- with a generous display of silence and understanding when it comes to the new surveillance techniques being adopted by law enforcement. Their standard-issue complaints ring hollow at a time of war, when civil liberties must necessarily be curtailed to some degree."

Obviously, fighting terrorism worldwide will not be sufficient to save the United States as we know it. If Podhoretz's sneering dismissal of constitutional protections is any indication, we're going to have to fight repression at home as well.

The war on terrorism declared by our government is part of a profound struggle between rationalism, human liberty, and modernity on the one hand, and fundamentalist religion and traditionalism on the other. It is, in short, a war between the Enlightenment and the medieval world. Though US policy in Arab and Muslim societies is hardly above reproach, it should be obvious to all Americans that the West cannot afford to lose the war against terrorism -- any more than we could afford to lose to Nazism or global communism.

In fighting this war, though, we would be well advised not to trample too heedlessly on the Bill of Rights -- emblematic, as it is, of the Enlightenment itself, with its emphasis on human liberty and autonomy. During virtually every dangerous moment in our history we have taken actions that we later came to regret: the Alien and Sedition Acts, used by President John Adams in the 1790s to imprison domestic critics and expel foreigners; the suspension of habeas corpus in the 1860s, during the Civil War; the Palmer raids against leftist groups during and after World War I, around 1920; the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, in the 1940s; the anti-Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era, in the 1950s; and the abuses of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which waged a secret, unconstitutional campaign of surveillance and disruption against the civil-rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s.

Then there was Richard Nixon, who occupied a category all to himself. The break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, the pilfering of antiwar activist (and Pentagon Papers leaker) Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatric records, the use of the Internal Revenue Service to harass political enemies -- Nixon's presidency was a constant, ongoing war against liberty. It was a war that ultimately resulted in his near-impeachment and, in 1974, his resignation.

Fortunately, to judge from the outcry by civil libertarians during the past few weeks, it appears that we have learned from the past. Unfortunately, we may be doomed to repeat it anyway. Support for freedom diminishes in the face of danger. What takes its place is a desire for safe, non-threatening conformity. It's understandable, given the current crisis, that President Bush is enjoying an unprecedented 90 percent approval rating (according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll). But it's chilling that the six percent who continue to disapprove of Bush's performance are being singled out as unpatriotic or worse.

Consider what happened to Bill Maher. Last week, on his ABC program, Politically Incorrect, Maher said something, well, politically incorrect -- namely, that in some past military campaigns, US forces "have been cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2000 miles away." He continued: "That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." The outcry was so fierce that Maher apologized, saying his views "should have been expressed differently" and that he should have aimed the "coward" charge at politicians rather than American troops. But that didn't stop Sears, Roebuck and FedEx from canceling their advertising, thus threatening the future of his show. Obviously, advertisers have a First Amendment right to withdraw their patronage; but in this case, it's the power of corporate money, not ideas, that is at issue. And that was just the beginning.

Clear Channel Communications, which owns the country's largest chain of radio stations, reportedly sent out a memo urging that its affiliates not play as many as 150 songs that could be considered offensive under the circumstances -- including John Lennon's "Imagine," which Neil Young managed to perform movingly and without controversy during last Friday's national telethon.

Massachusetts congressmen Marty Meehan and Richard Neal offered some mild criticism of Bush's performance in the hours immediately after the bombing -- and, according to Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, Meehan received threats serious enough to warrant police protection.

In Texas, the FBI shut down Arabic Web sites, prompting, according to Reuters, charges of conducting an "anti-Muslim witch hunt."

In Baltimore, the Sun reported that anchors and even a weather forecaster at one TV station were required "to read messages conveying full support for the Bush administration's efforts against terrorism." When staffers objected, the message was changed to indicate that it came from "station management."

A caller to NPR's The Connection last week said he's flying the American flag not just to demonstrate his patriotism, but to ward off the animus of those who might think that he, an olive-skinned Italian-American, was an Arab.

Televised comments by those geriatric poster boys for religious intolerance, the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, resulted in a double-reverse back flip that was almost funny. Falwell attributed the terrorist attacks to God's wrath, blaming the ACLU, feminists, abortion-rights supporters, and lesbians and gay men, and saying, "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve." Responded Robertson: "Jerry, that's my feeling." The once-influential hatemongers' comments touched off a firestorm of criticism, prompting Falwell to apologize, layering irony upon insult. Not only did his and Robertson's rhetoric reveal an anti-modernist mindset similar to the terrorists' (minus the violence), but by being forced to say "I'm sorry," Falwell himself became a victim of the same cultural clampdown on free speech that had ensnared Bill Maher and Marty Meehan.

Indeed, the threat posed to the First Amendment right now is not so much official censorship -- that is, bans enacted by the government -- as self-censorship, a phenomenon that is far more dangerous in an age of media conglomerates than it would have been in an earlier time. Maher can't speak his mind if advertisers are going to boycott his show, which must turn a profit for ABC in order to stay on the air. A list of songs banned by one radio station is of little consequence. But when Clear Channel suggests that its nearly 1200 radio stations consider not playing certain songs, that's downright chilling.

"We're in the very murky realm of self-censorship," says Marjorie Heins, director of the Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Institutions such as ABC and Clear Channel "have their own First Amendment rights to decide what to produce," she says. "This only gets worrisome if this gets pervasive and widespread and goes on for a long period of time. Hopefully they'll come to their senses."

Congress has recent experience in how not to react to a terrorist attack. A year after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a grotesque piece of legislation that accomplished two things. It severely curtailed the writ of habeas corpus, making it far more difficult for convicted criminals -- even those awaiting the death penalty -- to present new evidence that they'd been wrongly convicted. And it allowed the use of secret evidence in deportation cases against immigrants, which writer and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff has rightly called a "denial of fundamental due process."

It's notable how little any of it had to do with what actually happened in Oklahoma City. Keep that in mind. Over the past few years, a number of proposals to curtail fundamental freedoms in the name of security have festered in back offices in Washington and elsewhere, waiting for the right time to be pulled out of a drawer and sprung upon an unsuspecting public.

One of those times came on the evening of September 13, just two days after the attacks, when Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) brought an amendment to the floor that would make it far easier for government investigators to snoop on computer users. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) protested that the bill -- which few had had time even to read -- was overly broad and fuzzy. For instance, the bill would add "terrorism" to the list of crimes for which a person could be investigated. That would seem to be a no-brainer, except, as Leahy pointed out, the bill provided no definition of terrorism. "I guess some kid who is scaring you with his computer could be a terrorist and you could go through the kid's house, his parents' business, or anything else under this language; it is that broad," Leahy observed. He added: "Maybe the Senate wants to just go ahead and adopt new abilities to wiretap our citizens. Maybe they want to adopt new abilities to go into people's computers. Maybe that will make us feel safer. Maybe. And maybe what the terrorists have done made us a little bit less safe. Maybe they have increased Big Brother in this country."

Despite Leahy's opposition, the amendment passed on a voice vote. The appropriations bill to which it was attached was approved unanimously.

The situation in Washington right now is in flux. Though few doubt that the Hatch-Feinstein amendment would pass the House, it has been largely superseded by a bill filed last week by Attorney General Ashcroft -- the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, or ATA. The bill is being considered this week -- by Senator Leahy's Judiciary Committee, fortunately -- and could change considerably before it emerges from the legislative sausage-maker. Nevertheless, it has been the subject of wide-ranging opposition from groups that normally don't get along: like-minded organizations such as the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have been joined by conservative groups such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and the Gun Owners of America.

Among the more controversial provisions of the Ashcroft legislation are those aimed at bringing wiretapping laws into the digital age. Theoretically, this makes sense: investigators' ability to track crime should not be diminished by technological advances. Yet the legislation could give investigators a great deal more power than they have today. Under current law, for instance, officials can obtain the phone numbers called by a suspect, even without probable cause. Under ATA, investigators would be able to obtain e-mail addresses and even the Web locations a suspect has visited -- information that is considerably more revealing. The role of judges in approving such wiretaps would be diminished, thus weakening an important safeguard. "Roving" wiretaps, which follow a suspect from phone to phone rather than being placed on just one phone, would be permitted -- probably a sensible move, but open to abuse. The legislation could also make it easier for federal investigators to use a controversial piece of software known as "Carnivore," which would allow them to intercept enormous quantities of e-mail and other information from Internet service providers, even from innocent customers not suspected of any wrongdoing. Customers would have no choice but to trust the feds not to exceed the scope of their warrants. By contrast, traditional wiretapping targets just those customers covered by a warrant granted by a judge. It also requires the intervention of the phone company, which, at least in theory, provides an extra layer of protection.

Because ATA, the Hatch-Feinstein measure, and other proposals have been drafted so hastily, groups such as the ACLU, EFF, and EPIC have been forced to react more quickly than they normally would, issuing broad statements of principle with details still to come. On Monday, for example, EFF issued a statement that said in part, "We fully support legitimate government efforts to bring the perpetrators of these attacks to justice. Yet as a watchdog for civil liberties, we are skeptical of claims that the only way we can increase our security is giving up our freedoms."

If only ATA were the worst of it. Time magazine reports that the Bush administration "is considering the establishment of special military tribunals" so that suspected terrorists "could be tried without the ordinary legal constraints of American justice." This is in addition to a policy change Ashcroft has already announced that expands the government's power to detain immigrants suspected of crimes. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal on how Europe deals with terrorism raised a cafeteria full of repressive possibilities: issuing national identification cards, placing closed-circuit television in public places, and holding suspects without charge for days on end. "Biometrics" technology could be used to identify people through the unique characteristics of their eyes or other facial features.

Other proposals are lurking in the bushes. Just last month, Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) withdrew what critics have called the "Official Secrets Act" -- a bill that would make it a felony for government officials to leak virtually any classified information. (Never mind that it's already a crime to leak information that would compromise national security.) Former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has spoken often of government's excessive zeal in classifying information, as much to cover up official bungling as to protect the public. Last year Moynihan testified that the government has "enough classified material to stack up as high as 441 Washington Monuments." The Shelby legislation would only worsen this situation. As the New York Times editorialized, the bill would make it difficult to debate such important issues as the US-backed drug war in Colombia; it might even have hindered efforts to expose the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s. Perhaps the most important example of a righteous leak concerns the aforementioned Pentagon Papers, which revealed the secret bureaucratic history of the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, Shelby has promised to introduce his miserable bill again when the time is right. And he is nothing if not persistent, having persuaded Congress to pass it last year, when it died only as a result of Bill Clinton's veto.

Certain elements in Washington have been trying for years to ban the use of encryption technology unless the government could be guaranteed a way to crack the code. Never mind that there is no evidence the New York and Washington terrorists used encryption, and that freedom fighters in other parts of the world have used it to safeguard their communications from tyrants such as Slobodan Milosevic.

Now Senator Judd Gregg (R–New Hampshire) is going to try again, even though nearly unbreakable encryption technology is freely available on the Internet. Gregg, in other words, is proposing to act after the horse has gotten away and the barn has long since burned to the ground.

When encryption is outlawed, only outlaws will use encryption. Maybe making common cause with gun owners makes sense after all.

At the root of these proposals to take away some of our liberties is this terrible thing that happened to us, and the very real threat that it -- or something like it -- is going to happen again. "We're sort of in this desperate search for security, and we want everybody to be on the same page. And that is a scary thing," says Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum. "We have the right to private speech, to engage in public discussion, and to do so anonymously if we wish. Those are very important First Amendment freedoms. The danger is that we're possibly devolving into a society that is run by the tyranny of conformity."

If this is war, we have to preserve our right to express our opinions about it. Some will demonstrate in favor of peace; some already are doing so. Others -- probably most of us -- will favor military action, but will understand that, as a self-governing people, we need to do our utmost to understand what is going on and to criticize as well as support our government.

Brock Meeks brings an unusual perspective to the table. He covered the Soviets' war in Afghanistan for the San Francisco Chronicle. His pioneering online journal, CyberWire Dispatch, railed against (among other things) government attempts to curtail free speech on the Internet. Now, as chief Washington correspondent for, Meeks is worrying about a war that may well affect two of his sons, both of whom serve in the Army.

"I face the prospect of going back to Afghanistan and covering my own sons' deaths," Meeks says. "I think people should not be afraid to question the motives and operations of this government in anything that puts people in harm's way. People have to not go quietly into the night. The lessons of Vietnam aren't that far removed. People more than ever are going to have to dust off those 'Question Authority' buttons and bumper stickers and put them on."

Voluntary, heartfelt unity is one thing, and it's encouraging to see after the devastation of September 11. Conformity built on social stigmatization or even threats, combined with repressive new laws, is something else entirely.

Part of the job we all have to do in order to win this war is to prevent the barbarians who seek to exterminate the Western notion of individual liberty from causing us to do a good part of the job ourselves. In American constitutional law, virtually no liberties are absolute. After all, as Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg once said, "The Constitution is not a suicide pact."

Nevertheless, freedom would be drastically diminished if the Bill of Rights, targeted as the result of a siege mentality, were substantially weakened. The big danger that lies ahead -- as big a danger, at least in a larger historical context, as terrorism itself -- is that we'll turn our backs on the Enlightenment.

At this time of national crisis, many Americans take some comfort in waving the flag, and rightly so. But the flag is not the only symbol of our culture of liberty.

So, too, is the Constitution.

Dan Kennedy is a media critic for the Boston Phoenix. Harvey Silverglate is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses (HarperPerennial) and a partner in the law firm of Silverglate & Good.

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