Balancing Liberty and Security

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

Balancing Liberty and Security


Byline: Paul Rosenzweig, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

How ironic that the war on terrorism we've been waging since September 11 a war meant to ensure our safety should itself inspire fear in some Americans.

Yet cries of "Big Brother" materialize whenever we hear about new government programs meant to enhance our security, such as increased information-sharing under the Patriot Act or the Total Information Awareness program. Some critics have even suggested that such measures could eventually lead to a totalitarian state.

Many won't go that far, but they admit they're concerned. When Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before Congress in March, Rep. Jose Serrano, New York Democrat, told him: "Some of the policies the [Justice] department has proposed to combat terrorism are deeply troubling, and I fear some officials are so intent on fighting against terror that they forget what we are fighting for."

A healthy mistrust of government is commendable. Indeed, one could argue that such skepticism has helped the United States remain a free nation for well over two centuries.

But fears of a police state are overblown. We're merely witnessing a recurring pattern in American history. Professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago recently outlined some of this history in an address to the Supreme Court Historical Society, and what he said shows how the pendulum between liberty and security swings as circumstances change.

In 1798, the United States was in a state of undeclared war with Napoleon's France. To combat pro-French political views, Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts to prohibit the publication of "false, scandalous and malicious writings" against the government.

It was, in effect, an effort to suppress political criticism of President John Adams, his policies and his administration. When Thomas Jefferson replaced Adams as president, he pardoned all those who were convicted under the act, which is today widely regarded as a stain on American liberty.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus eight times, and the military imprisoned as many as 38,000 civilians. In 1866, a year after the war ended, the Supreme Court ruled Lincoln's acts unconstitutional. …

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