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Liberty vs. security

By Charles Bloomer
web posted July 25, 2005

How do we find balance between liberty and security in today's environment? Since September 11, the government has taken several actions that are designed to improve the security of Americans – for example, the Patriot Act, more surveillance cameras, etc. In light of those actions, are we more secure? Have we lost any freedoms? Are the actions taken within the scope and intent of the limitations set upon government by our Constitution?

Two items of interest over the last few days brought these questions to mind.

First, Heather MacDonald, writing in frontpagemag.com, takes to task libertarians who oppose security cameras in public places. MacDonald states that the advantages of public surveillance cameras were shown in the aftermath of the recent London terrorist bombings by helping police investigators to identify the perpetrators quickly. The assistance provided to authorities was worth more than any perceived loss of liberty. MacDonald points out that surveillance cameras in public areas do not deprive anyone of liberty since the cameras are in public places which are, by definition not private places. We do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place.

Even supporters of public surveillance cameras admit that the cameras cannot prevent the kind of terrorist acts that occurred in London. Opponents point out that the police who monitor the cameras are not in the same location as any suspect they see, so their ability to respond is hampered by the physical distance.

The second item came up as a topic on a local radio call-in show – Chris Core on WMAL in Washington, DC. The subject was the continuing incarceration of Jose Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomber". Padilla has been held for 3 years now, incommunicado, without access to a lawyer and without charges being filed against him. Padilla has allegedly fought against US troops in Afghanistan, returned to the United States and planned on detonating at least one "dirty bomb" – a bomb made of conventional explosives but packed with radioactive materials. He has been labeled an "enemy combatant" by the Bush administration, as are the terrorists held at Guantanamo Naval Base. The difference is that Padilla is an American citizen.

If the charges are true, Padilla should be either executed or imprisoned for the rest of his natural life, without parole. I have no sympathy for him.

The question here is whether or not Padilla, as an American citizen, is to be afforded the Constitutional protections that apply to all Americans. Can the government arbitrarily determine that a criminal is an "enemy combatant" and hold that person indefinitely? Can the government suspend habeas corpus without meeting the specific conditions set forth in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution? How can the government deny the Fifth and Sixth Amendments in the case of an American citizen arrested on American soil? If the government can deny Constitutional protections to Padilla by simply declaring him an "enemy combatant", what is there to prevent the government from arbitrarily assigning that status to any other American and holding him or her indefinitely?

I'm all for catching criminals. I'm in favor of the death penalty. But in between the "catching" phase and the "penalty" phase, we have established procedures, codified in the Constitution and in criminal law, that protect the innocent and those Americans who are disliked by those in power. Our justice system may not be perfect – sometimes the innocent are punished and the guilty are freed – and while we are protecting the rights of the innocent we must also protect those of the guilty, but we have yet to discover a better system. The American concepts of justice and liberty are served only when the established procedures are followed.

The idea of balance between liberty and security is a difficult concept to establish in the real world. The disagreements occur not in the general concept, but in the specifics – how much liberty should we sacrifice to gain how much security? How much power do we give the government to infringe on the rights the government is charged with protecting to allow that same government to fulfill its obligation to provide security for the people? At what point have we gone so far in ceding our liberty that our feeling of security turns to fear of the government we have empowered?

There are no easy answers. If we value our freedom and liberty while we demand safety and security, it behooves every one of us to think long and hard. The balance is delicate. A shift too far in either direction puts us all in danger.

Charles Bloomer is a Contributing Editor for Enter Stage Right and the creator of Liberty Call US. © 2005 Charles Bloomer


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