Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Freedom Is Risky

Why is it such a bad idea for the Bush administration to rewrite law to allow torture and to authorize warrantless wiretapping, among other legally questionable power moves? The people who say that we can't be safe without sacrificing some measure of personal freedom have it exactly backward, as Eugene Robinson tells us:

The problem is that if the president really were determined to do anything it takes to prevent another terrorist strike, why not suspend habeas corpus, as Lincoln did during the Civil War? That way you could arrest everyone who could possibly be a terrorist, or who once lived next door to a suspected terrorist's uncle, and you could hold those people as long as you wanted. Why stop at surveillance of international telephone calls and e-mails? Why not listen in on, say, all interstate calls as well? Or just go for it and scarf up all the domestic communications the National Security Agency's copious computers can hold?

Why stop at waterboarding? Why not go all the way and pull out some fingernails, if that would give Americans another tiny increment of security? Wouldn't electric shocks make us safer still? Just order the White House lawyers to draw up yet another thumb-on-the-scale legal opinion explaining how torture isn't really torture, and have at it.

If potential terrorists may be walking among us, why not have police officers stand on street corners all day and subject anyone who looks "suspicious" to questioning and a search? That's what Fidel Castro does in Cuba, and believe me, Cuba is an extremely safe country.

In Vietnam we destroyed villages in order to save them. In this war on terrorism, why not go ahead and destroy our freedoms in order to save them?

The reason we don't do these absurd things, of course, is that we see a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. That bright line is the law, drawn by Congress and regularly surveyed by the judiciary. It can be shifted, but the president has no right to shift it on his own authority. His constitutional war powers give him wide latitude, but those powers are not unlimited.

If you go along with my experiment and assume that the president has the best of motives, then the problem is that he wants to protect the American people but doesn't trust us.

There can be no freedom without some measure of risk. We guarantee freedom of the press, which means that newspapers sometimes print things the government doesn't want printed. We guarantee that defendants cannot be forced to incriminate themselves, which means that sometimes bad guys go free. We accept these risks as the price of liberty.

The president would probably respond that in an era of loose-knit terrorist groups and suitcase nukes, the risks are exponentially greater than those his predecessors faced. Even if you agree, the answer is not to act unilaterally but to go to Congress and the courts and ask them to redraw that line between state power and individual freedom. [Emphasis mine.]

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