American Politics - Balance Between Freedom and Order

Monday, July 16, 2012
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center of September 11, 2001 were the force that initiated restrictions on civil liberties both on American soil and abroad. President George Bush used these attacks as his reasoning for signing the Patriot Act into existence. This Act allows federal investigators to seize individual personal records in addition to using electronic auditory surveillance to monitor the activities of suspected terrorists. The allowances provided to investigators via the Patriot Act are, what most Americans would consider, a violation of their civil liberties. Still, this is not the first time that the U.S. government has placed restrictions on the rights of its citizens. However, it may well be the most arguably contested instance of patriotic-inspired law.

Some experts argue that the liberties that the governments of the United States, Canada, and the nations of the European Union are taking with liberties will lead to a general apathy by the citizenry in regard to the acceptance of such practices. It has been noted that, as citizens become used to such restrictions, they will find them commonplace and will grow to accept them as reasonable practice, leaving the government to play with civil rights as they see fit. Indeed, the fact that most people do eventually become accustomed to practices that they may have once considered restrictive, or even wrong, is almost similar to a forced inoculation of civil policy. For the most part, these experts assert that those individuals who are ultimately having their civil liberties violates are those who are not guilty of any crime, and that this sort of hunt-and-peck mission by the government to uncover terrorists will do little more to produce guilty parties than the policies that were available before the Patriot Act and the September 11th attacks. There are even those conspiracy theorists who believe that the American government is using terrorism as an excuse to institute a government-centered manner of performing investigations and that the governments involved ultimately intend to use these new policies as a tacit permission to invade the privacy of its citizens.

Certainly, the citizens of any democracy would be willing to sacrifice some civil liberty in exchange for democratic freedom. The question is, how far should these policies go, what liberties are citizens expected to sacrifice, and what is the guarantee that these sacrifices will indeed lead to protection from terrorism and other crimes. One of the major arguments against the liberties that governments have taken with citizen rights surrounds the example of publicly placed surveillance cameras. Some European nations installed such cameras before September 11, 2001 in order to combat terrorism which has been rampant in Europe for decades. However, some citizens complain that these cameras are now being used to issue traffic tickets. Is this an example of using the cameras to their full capacity or is it merely a violation of civil liberties? In the United States, many municipalities are installing such cameras with the stated intention of filming traffic violations, yet most citizens still rebel against them as a rights violation.

As stated earlier, the restrictions put in force after September 11, 2001 are not the first time that the American government has attempted to balance civil liberty with law enforcement and public safety. During World War II, more than one hundred thousand Japanese-Americans were forcibly detained in detention areas across the United States. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment was probably as intense as anti-Middle Eastern sentiment was following the terrorist attacks on the world trade center. And, along the same lines as the Japanese internment camps, the United States government required a slew of men of Middle Eastern descent to register their whereabouts and went on a hunt for foreign nationals that had overstayed their visas. These policies were certainly not as restrictive as the corralling of thousands of Japanese who were also U.S. citizens, but they are certainly walking a fine line between safety and liberty in a democratic society.

Yet, if a certain population has been identified as a particular threat, what is the government supposed to do to maintain order and guarantee safety. As many will agree, citizenship is no guarantee of patriotism. Some experts agree with the policies that required Middle Eastern individuals to register their whereabouts, indicating that had less restrictive policies been used in regard to the Japanese "problem" there would likely have been far less of a condemnation of the situation. Still, such suggestions are not the focus of the current national civil safety policies; the focus is a sort of spy campaign upon suspected terrorists, or so one hopes.

The balances between national security and civil rights are generally seen to be maintained by the way a democratic government is set up and in the way that it functions. Sometimes, however, one must wonder at the actual power the rest of the government may have to restrain the Executive Branch. Some individuals assert that it is public opinion that governs the government. This may be somewhat true in that politics has become a permanent campaign and the nation's leaders rely very heavily on public opinion polls to guide policy. Indeed, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, public opinion, no matter what the guilt that accompanied the agreement, would have ultimately concurred with just about any restriction the government chose to place on individuals who even slightly resembled the terrorists in likeness or religious beliefs. As a matter of fact, many individuals did not think that the government worked fast enough or hard enough to issue such restrictions.

The primary question remains that the restrictions placed on civil liberties must be proportionate to the crimes they are attempting to prevent. Using the mid-twentieth century internment of Japanese-Americans as an example, this largely loyal population would have best been served with curfews and geographic restrictions rather than what amounted to outright imprisonment. In the same vein, is national security best served by electronically violating the lives of the nation's citizens? Certainly, rash public opinion, or even rash Executive Branch opinion, may not be able to make the best determination of what would constitute effective security policies.

By Rebecca Stigall