Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial
September 21, 2001


Liberty -- Don't Sacrifice It To Terrorism


After that horrible Tuesday, what American wouldn't trade a little liberty for safety? With jumbo jets drilling into skyscrapers and terrorists scurrying like ants, sacrifice is clearly in order. That's why air travelers wouldn't think of griping about body searches, and baseball fans are content to leave their coolers behind when they go to games. Stiffer security seems a small price to pay for saving lives, and most Americans are heartened by President Bush's vow to do "whatever it takes" to defeat terrorism.

Yet even in these harrowing times, it's worth looking before leaping. Do Americans really think well of the "whatever-it-takes" battle cry? They shouldn't. There are all sorts of "whatevers" this country could but shouldn't embrace to fight terrorism. It could unleash police to search apartment blocks where immigrants are known to live -- hoping to root out a terrorist needle in the haystack. It could scrap the rule that suspects be told of their rights to a lawyer and to remain silent -- hoping that hapless confessions of terror plots will follow. It could jail suspicious foreigners for weeks -- hoping that incriminating evidence might eventually show up.

Many Americans recoil at the thought of such blunt tactics, even if they can't say why. They sense something un-American about combating terrorism by scrapping the rule of law. They see the folly of defending the land of the free by shrinking its freedoms.

It's a folly and a peril, and could soon be a done deal. Resolved to respond fiercely to ferocity, leaders in Washington are rushing to embrace almost any "antiterrorist" measure. Last Thursday a unanimous Senate approved an Internet-surveillance bill within minutes of getting the text. Just this Tuesday, the Bush administration expanded from 24 hours to 48 hours its authority to detain legal immigrants without charge -- and to hold them indefinitely during national emergencies such as the current one. The longer detainment may be justified; indefinite detainment raises serious concerns.

Now the administration is pushing for immediate passage of a bill that would give police new power to tap phones, eavesdrop on e-mails and seize private credit-card data from businesses. The bill would also give law enforcers broad authority to arrest and deport legal immigrants suspected of terror plots -- without ever making a case in court.

Such a sweeping bill deserves a very close look -- much closer than lawmakers can manage in a few days. Even if Congress subscribes to the "whatever-it-takes" philosophy, it's not clear this legislation should pass. The White House has made no case that existing law enabled last week's attack or hindered the ensuing investigation. Nor has it established that squelching civil liberties is a wise response to the threat of terror.

In truth, forsaking American freedom is precisely the wrong answer to the fear terrorists sow. It gives them the victory they seek. It flouts an article of American faith: that just as some sacrifices must be made in safety's name, others must never be made.

Copyright 2001, Minneapolis Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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