The Emergency Constitution

By Ackerman, Bruce | The Yale Law Journal, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The Emergency Constitution

Ackerman, Bruce, The Yale Law Journal


Terrorist attacks will be a recurring part of our future. The balance of technology has shifted, making it possible for a small band of zealots to wreak devastation where we least expect it--not on a plane next time, but with poison gas in the subway or a biotoxin in the water supply. The attack of September 11 is the prototype for many events that will litter the twenty-first century. We should be looking at it in a diagnostic spirit: What can we learn that will permit us to respond more intelligently the next time around?

If the American reaction is any guide, we urgently require new constitutional concepts to deal with the protection of civil liberties. Otherwise, a downward cycle threatens: After each successful attack, politicians will come up with repressive laws and promise greater security--only to find that a different terrorist band manages to strike a few years later. (1) This disaster, in turn, will create a demand for even more repressive laws, and on and on. Even if the next half-century sees only four or five attacks on the scale of September 11, this destructive cycle will prove devastating to civil liberties by 2050.

It is tempting to respond to this grim prospect with an absolutist defense of traditional freedom: No matter how large the event, no matter how great the ensuing panic, we must insist on the strict protection of all rights all the time. I respect this view but do not share it. No democratic government can maintain popular support without acting effectively to calm panic and to prevent a second terrorist strike. If respect for civil liberties requires governmental paralysis, serious politicians will not hesitate before sacrificing rights to the war against terrorism. They will only gain popular applause by brushing civil libertarian objections aside as quixotic.

To avoid a repeated cycle of repression, defenders of freedom must consider a more hard-headed doctrine--one that allows short-term emergency measures but draws the line against permanent restrictions. Above all else, we must prevent politicians from exploiting momentary panic to impose long-lasting limitations on liberty. Designing a constitutional regime for a limited state of emergency is a tricky business. Unless careful precautions are taken, emergency measures have a habit of continuing well beyond their time of necessity. Governments should not be permitted to run wild even during the emergency; many extreme measures should remain off limits. Nevertheless, the self-conscious design of an emergency regime may well be the best available defense against a panic-driven cycle of permanent destruction.

This is a challenge confronting all liberal democracies, and we should not allow American particularities to divert attention from the general features of our problem in institutional design. Nevertheless, the distinctive character of the U.S. Constitution does create special problems, which I discuss separately when the need arises. My argument proceeds in two stages: The first is diagnostic, the second prescriptive. The exercise in diagnosis involves a critical survey of the conceptual resources provided by the Western legal tradition: Are our basic concepts adequate for dealing with the distinctive features of terrorist strikes? Part I suggests that we cannot deal with our problem adequately within the frameworks provided by the law of war or the law of crime. This negative conclusion clears the conceptual path for another way to confront the problem: the "state of emergency." The paradigm case for emergency powers has been an imminent threat to the very existence of the state, which necessitates empowering the Executive to take extraordinary measures.

Part II urges a critical reassessment of this traditional understanding: September 11 and its successors will not pose such a grave existential threat, but major acts of terrorism can induce short-term panic. It should be the purpose of a newly fashioned emergency regime to reassure the public that the situation is under control, and that the state is taking effective short-term actions to prevent a second strike. …

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