Surrender even a sliver of civil liberties, and youve given the terrorists exactly what they want: a paranoid, unpleasant America.
That is the pivot of the argument civil libertarians are now making as they steel themselves for inevitable battles on Capitol Hill about how to fight terrorism.
I dont know whether to embrace their argument or dismiss it. Discussions about dealing with terrorism revolve around surveillance. Arguments about privacy almost always touch on surveillance. The two are tango partners, dancing on a high wire. Balance is paramount.
But what happens when the high wire itself buckles? To save ourselves, must the balance shift? Or must civil liberties always remain static, regardless of the environment in which they are rooted? When America is viciously and powerfully attacked by enemies, yoked not to a particular country, but linked only by a common hatred for America, what is the proper balance?
What is urgently needed is a national dialogue about sacrifice.
Given the subterranean, elusive nature of this foe — a force not storming across seas in great ships or soaring across heavens in vast swarms, but living among us, hiding behind innocents in countries around the world — battle strategies surely must be unique.
Sophisticated surveillance will undoubtedly be enlisted in the effort. Perhaps that means much more "human intelligence," the kind of hands-on spying involving undercover agents. But its one thing to establish moles in the vast bureaucracies of Western governments. Its quite another to infiltrate small groups of fanatical, messianic terrorist cells with helpful turncoats or transplanted spies.
It seems likely that electronic surveillance — including monitoring of Internet communications — will be deemed crucial in this effort and that lawmakers will call for Americans to sacrifice some privacy in exchange for safety. Maybe the U.S. government could implement temporary measures. When America is back on an even keel, lawmakers could argue, any sacrificed civil liberties would be swiftly returned. Maybe we shouldnt so readily reject government projects like Carnivore, the FBIs software package that sniffs e-mail.
Stewart Baker, a former National Security Agency general counsel who now specializes in technology policy in Washington, D.C., urged Americas leaders to be bolder in their use of surveillance, and not shrink from, as he put it, "being embarrassed."
I view civil liberties advocates as national heroes. They cherish Americas ideals and toil to protect them. But heroes, too, are those who work to protect America physically: its cities, transportation networks and, most important, its people.
Both sides tend to view the world in black and white. As a reporter, my horizon is usually colored in grays. I dont know who is right. But Im eager to listen.