Thursday, September 20, 2007

National security vs. civil liberty in America

Published: Sept. 20, 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It is a solemn anniversary each year, the kind where you hold your breath hoping that you won't hear a news report about a terrorist bombing or some other horrific act. I'm talking, of course, about Sept. 11, a date that will remain seared into our consciousnesses for the rest of our lives.

Understandably, the date also has devolved into a ritualistic debate regarding the competing ideals of national security and civil liberties. Here's my take.

Civil liberties, including the right to privacy, are critically necessary in any free society. The ability to express myself through this column is an obvious example. However, civil liberties should not in and of themselves supersede national security. And some of the clamor about domestic surveillance has gone from making my eyes roll to making my blood boil.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, enacted in 1996, the government reserved for itself the right to comb through your medical records without court approval if such an action is deemed potentially useful to a federal investigation.

I wasn't particularly concerned about that in 1996, nor am I now. How many abuses of that law have been documented in the past 11 years? Consider the entire domestic surveillance hubbub we hear today and ask: Do you really think the CIA cares about phone calls you have made or books you have checked out from the library?

Of course not, and I don't want to hamper its efforts to locate people who would hurt innocent Americans. Vice President Dick Cheney can pore over my phone logs whenever he pleases. If I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear.

So frisk me! If it makes us all safer, it's worth it. Blame terrorists and their supporters for the circumstances that gave rise to these extraordinary precautions; don't blame policy-makers trying to keep us safe.

A related concept in the civil liberties controversy is the notion of racial profiling. The idea that added scrutiny is given to some purely on the basis of ethnicity is not new, and, in practice, it arguably can be quite troubling.

During World War II, for example, many Japanese-Americans and some German-Americans underwent humiliating treatment in this country to ensure that they possessed no loyalties to the Emperor or to the F├╝hrer.

That's a sad chapter for us, but it's not at all what I am advocating. There are no internment camps today for Muslim-Americans. No reasonable person would support such measures.

On the other hand, our country was not attacked by radical fundamentalist Norwegians. I doubt you'll find many Nordic sleeper cells operating around the world. So if I am acting suspiciously in an airport like the six Muslim men in the Minneapolis airport last fall, the fact that I am drawing comparatively more attention than some platinum blond named Sven makes sense to me.

Letter writer Patrick Collentine put it thus in the Sept. 16 Journal Sentinel:
"Since there have been countless attacks thwarted and none executed in six years, I think it is obvious we are more safe today because of the USA Patriot Act, domestic wiretapping, aggressive interrogation and holding suspected detainees until we are sure they pose no threat to America."

He added, "There has been one case in six years that the Justice Department has prosecuted for the infringement on civil liberties. I'll take that trade-off any day."

So will I.