Libertarian Lamentations: Libertarians Fear That Political Opportunists Will Use Public Concern about Terrorism to Usher in Big Government, Threaten Civil Liberties and Close Borders to Immigration. (Nation: State Power)

Article excerpt

Much has changed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, including the way many Americans look at their government. And that is causing concern. "Historically, war has always led to an expansion of government," Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for foreign policy at the Cato Institute, Washington's leading libertarian think tank, tells Insight. "I'd be mighty surprised if this didn't happen now as well."

That's fine with those who seldom have anything but praise for big government. Al Hunt, a liberal who is a Wall Street Journal columnist, wrote Sept. 27 that there seemed to be a "moratorium on government-bashing." This followed Hunt's praise for the bravery of police, fire and rescue personnel -- all of whom, he noted, are public employees.

For another segment of political Americana, this is ominous news. Libertarians, who decry government authority over citizens, fear a wave of concern about national security will encourage big government, threaten civil liberties and reduce self-reliance.

In a column written shortly after the attacks, Carpenter warned that proponents of state power will use public concern about terrorism to promote their own views. "Americans should recognize that political and ideological opportunists are not above exploiting any issue," he wrote. "We should also understand that not everything advertised as essential in the fight against our terrorist enemy is worthy."

Some libertarians are more caustic. "If libertarian ideas were unpopular before Sept. 11, they seem downright dismissed, scoffed at, kicked and spat upon after Sept. 11" laments Washington-area banker Christopher Mayer on the Website of the "paleolibertarian" Ludwig yon Mises Institute.

Indeed, Republicans in the Bush administration eagerly have proposed stringent curtailment of some liberties they apparently regard as inconvenient in time of war. Attorney General John Ashcroft proposed within two weeks of the attacks that Congress pass legislation authorizing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to keep illegal aliens with ties to terrorists in jail indefinitely. "We've arrested and detained almost 500 people since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and we do that for people who are out of immigration status -- they've violated the law. We need the ability to keep them in jail and not have them bonded out" Ashcroft said in an interview on CBS at the beginning of October.

However, lawmakers of both parties objected to those stringent proposals. In the House, both Reps. Bob Barr, a conservative Republican from Georgia, and Maxine Waters, a left-leaning Democratic partisan from California, skeptically questioned Ashcroft about his proposals. "I'm mildly surprised" Carpenter says, referring to this convergence of left and right in defense of civil liberties. "This didn't exist in World War I, World War II or the early days of the Cold War."

Eventually, the Senate proved a bit more agreeable than the House. Key Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee struck a deal with the White House on a package of new police powers to combat terrorism. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking member on the committee, said the agreement with the White House "takes into account each of our principled beliefs and is based on our views on the proper balance between the role of law enforcement and our civil liberties."

Senators refused to demand an expiration date for the new laws, but the House insisted that they expire at the beginning of 2004, Senate aides told journalists. Still, senators killed a proposal to allow immigrants suspected of terrorism to be held indefinitely without the filing of charges, aides said.

The Senate proposal does allow nationwide jurisdiction for electronic-surveillance devices and legal expansion of those devices to e-mail and the Internet. It also authorizes the use of "roving" wiretaps in which officials may be given court orders allowing them to tap any telephone used by a person targeted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the aides said. …