Safety: a Threat to Liberty?

By Scot Petersen  |  Posted 2001-10-01

Many of us will give up some conveniences of daily life to stop terrorism. Living without skycaps and waiting in line for hours are trivial nuisances when compared with the possibility of boarding an unsafe plane. But what about retinal scans, fingerprints and government ID cards?

How far are we willing to go? The government has plenty of intelligence on terrorism—and us—but little to show in the way of preventive measures. News reports about Osama bin Ladens activities over the past 20 years lead one very easily to the conclusion that U.S. officials knew that a large-scale domestic attack was in the offing.

Now the government wants even more data. In the name of fighting terrorism, it has taken the first steps to see that the rest of our already not-very-private lives are more easily accessible. E-mail, instant messaging conversations and cell phones are not off-limits from government scrutiny; neither is encryption.

Is weaker cryptography acceptable because terrorists use the same technology to keep their communications from law enforcement officials? Yes, if theres proof that such surveillance will stop a terrorist from doing his job.

But then most of us are not terrorists. How does that explain airport officials confiscating thousands of personal items in the search for would-be weapons?

The argument goes "I can live with all the extra scrutiny because I have nothing to hide, and Im not afraid if certain liberties are taken from me." But I am afraid if our government, in taking steps to find terrorists, makes us all suspects. Or if technology designed to protect a persons privacy and drive e-commerce could be taken away or weakened in that same fight.

And if we are successful in the war on terrorism—and I believe we will be—will we get back those liberties taken in that battle? We could recall, as a rallying cry for today, Barry Goldwaters words in 1964: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Yet in that defense, we dont want to weaken the very liberties, or the people, we are fighting for.

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