Academic journal article Social Education

In War, Is Law Silent? Security and Freedom after September 11. (Reflections in a Time of Crisis)

Academic journal article Social Education

In War, Is Law Silent? Security and Freedom after September 11. (Reflections in a Time of Crisis)

Article excerpt

IT WAS SEPTEMBER 29, eighteen days after the terrible attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. While standing in a long luggage-check line with my daughter at Baltimore-Washington Airport--our first trip there since September 11--we noticed that a man who looked Middle Eastern had been pulled out of the line ahead. Both of his suitcases lay open on a table while airport security guards unpacked and searched them. He did not openly object, but on his face we could read his embarrassment at being singled out and having his clothes and personal effects exposed for all to see. The process took more than thirty minutes.

The trip to the airport that day took longer and was different for everyone. I had to park my car in a different spot, arrive two hours ahead of time for a domestic flight, and forgo talking with my daughter at the gate for the hour before the flight. Small things, one might say, but they all added up to a diminution in the freedom that my daughter and I had always enjoyed as Americans. But for people like the man whose luggage was searched--who may or may not have been Middle Eastern, and may or may not have been an American citizen--restrictions on freedoms and rights are in danger of going far beyond personal inconvenience.

Many Americans will cite the overriding need for security as an explanation for such occurrences. What happened on September 11 is unparalleled by anything we have ever known. The attacks killed more than 5,000 people, injured tens of thousands more, and caused economic hardship and grief to hundreds of thousands more. From the New York attacks alone, more than 10,000 people lost a parent. Millions more were traumatized by either watching the attacks directly or reliving them through hundreds of hours of replays or analysis. The hijackers trampled the victims' most basic human right--life--and destroyed the rights of people around the world to security. They made every person in this country afraid. Our right to feel safe has been limited in the short run, perhaps limited forever.

But how were other rights of Americans affected by this horrible event? Do all Americans now have fewer rights? Or only some Americans, people identified as "suspected terrorists" or "Arab-looking" or "Muslim"? If we agree that, because of September 11, the rights of some or all should be restricted, another vexing question arises: how much and for how long?

When we speak of "rights" in the United States, we usually refer to constitutional or legal rights: rights enforceable by law. But there is another category of rights, human rights. This term--originally known as natural rights--evolved from the theory that all people are entitled to certain protections and freedoms simply by virtue of being born human. These include the rights to food, shelter, bodily security, education, medical care, free press, free speech, and freedom of religion, among others. Eleanor Roosevelt led the movement to encourage the nations of the world to formally agree to respect these rights. Her vision came tree in 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, most nations accept, at least in theory, the concept of human rights as inalienable and agree that they should not be limited by any government or people.

Why Limit Rights?

In times of crisis, constitutional, legal, or human rights are often limited, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in great. People are often willing at such times to give up certain rights--or to deny certain segments of the population some rights--to bring about other benefits, such as increased security and more efficient law enforcement.

Following September 11, both the executive and the legislative branches of the federal government have spoken of limiting certain rights for two purposes: (1) to enable the government to detain, arrest, prosecute, and punish the people who were behind the terrorist attacks; and (2) to prevent future attacks. …

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