If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide, you shouldn’t even be here
You’ve had your chance, now we’ve got the mandate
If you’ve changed your mind, I’m afraid it’s too late
We’re concerned you’re a threat
You’re not integral to the project
Pet Shop Boys, “Integral”
In the last decade, as the “War on Terror” has been raged, first by the Bush and then the Obama administrations, the question of the balance between liberty and security has been a fierce one. This is not a new debate, though. The questions and controversies surrounding increased governmental powers and limitations on civil rights date back to the early years of our nation.
In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed into law as a reaction to the French Revolution’s bloody Reign of Terror. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus. Although Lincoln is regarded as one of the greatest of the U.S. Presidents, this is an action that a century and a half later is still hotly debated among historians. And during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast within internment camps.
So the continuing reactionary policies of certain politicians in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, although disheartening, are anything but unprecedented. On December 31, 2011, Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act. One provision of the law is that it affirmed the ability of the federal government to indefinitely imprison without trial any individuals, including American citizens. Many have regarded this as just the latest trampling of the Bill of Rights by an increasingly unchecked government. Myself, I was very disappointed that Obama signed this into law. Disappointed, but not surprised. It is an election year, after all, and he obviously did not want to appear weak on national security. Whatever else he is, Obama is a shrewd individual who wants to gain a second term as President. He is certainly not the first politician to forsake his stated principles in order to court votes.
More recently, here in New York City, it has been revealed that the NY Police Department has been conducting extensive surveillance of Muslim-American businesses and students, even going so far as to follow them out-of-state. There are concerns that the NYPD is not acting on any legitimate leads or suspicions, but rather engaging in racial profiling. The Associated Press’s revelation of these actions has resulted in criticism not just from the Muslim community, but from officials in New Jersey and Washington DC. The FBI seems to be regarding the NYPD’s lone wolf tactics as having both damaged several of their own investigations, as well as harming relations between the government and the Muslim community. Unsurprisingly, despite all of the criticism, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have imperiously refused to back down, retorting that their actions were both legal and necessary to save lives from possible terrorist threats.
It appears that it is within our nature to all-to-quickly give in to fear, to be ready to forsake our liberty for a comforting feeling of security. We should do well to remember the words often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, namely that those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.
Please keep in mind that I am not claiming that legitimate threats to our security do not exist. They do, and we need to safeguard against them. But in the process, it is crucial that we do not destroy the very freedoms we are fighting to safeguard. There must ever be a balance between liberty and security. Too much of one extreme or the other can lead to devastating consequences.