Life, liberty, and the pursuit of national security

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of national security

Ever since 9/11, everyone has agreed that the United States should be doing more to protect the “homeland.” (I have always had a problem with that word, because it reminds me of phrases used by totalitarian states, such as “The Fatherland” or “Mother Russia.”)

Thus, we had the 9/11 Commission, officially, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The Department of Homeland Security was created pursuant to a recommendation of the Commission, and legislation like the USA Patriot Act was passed and implemented. (In this case, “USA” stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America,” not the country.)

Each policy and act implemented in the name of national security has engendered debate on points of constitutional law such as the right of free speech or right of privacy. These debates usually come down to a balancing act between the need for enhanced security, constitutional strictures, and public inconvenience.

The Transportation Security Administration’s airline security rules are Exhibit A. We do not want a repeat of the 9/11 plane hijackings and their aftermath, but we do not want to be inconvenienced in what we carry onboard, or be subject to pat-downs or full body scans, which many believe are violations of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches.

Two events in this arena were in the news last week. The first was reaction to the scheduling of congressional hearings on the “radicalization of the American Muslim community” by Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the new chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.

King said the hearings are a response to complaints from law enforcement officials that Muslim leaders have been uncooperative in terror investigations. In a recent radio interview, King said that more than 80 percent of mosques are “controlled by radical imams,” citing the 1999 testimony of a Muslim leader to the State Department as evidence.

A demonstration and counterdemonstration were held in front of King’s Long Island office. Protestors opposed what they called the “demonizing of our Muslim American neighbors.” One sign said, “Muslim Americans have rights.” In one picture, a protestor was holding a six-inch magen David.

King is not without supporters. One is Ed Koch, who called the hearings “a sensible act on [King’s] part which should be supported by the American public.”

There is a balancing act at work here. There are increased concern about “homegrown” Muslim terrorists on one hand, and concern that Muslims have been unfairly targeted for scrutiny since 9/11.

Law enforcement officials feel frustrated in efforts to reach out to Muslim American leaders in order to make the United States more secure, hence, the King hearings.

In supporting King, Koch looks at the experiences of Western Europe.

Currently many Western countries, e.g., Great Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and the United States, have been surprised that their own native-born and naturalized citizens have been responsible for planning and executing terrorist acts, sometimes failures and other times successful. A large number of Islamic terrorist acts have been foiled by U.S. domestic security agencies that infiltrated the plotters’ small circle of activists.

This raises the second national security news event, the arrest of Khalid Aldawsari, a 20-year-old Saudi business student at South Plains College in Lubbock, Texas.

Aldawsari was arrested a few weeks after he tried to buy chemicals that could be used to build an improvised explosive device. He wrote in his journal that he was inspired by Osama bin Laden and that 9/11 had caused a “big change” in his thinking.

According to the federal criminal complaint, he was considering using realistic-looking baby dolls in strollers, which had been altered to conceal bombs.

Aldawsari also appeared to be in the early stages of drawing up plans for an attack on New York by renting several cars, putting bombs in them, and leaving them in “different places at rush hour.”

He apparently considered targeting former President George W. Bush’s home in Dallas, to which he referred as the “Tyrant’s House.” His long list of targets included dams and nuclear plants in the West.

The tip about Aldawsari came from a chemical supply company which became suspicious after he tried to buy phenol, a bomb-making ingredient.

The question is how many more Aldawsaris are out there. One way to find out is through tips provided to law enforcement officials. This is where the King hearings come in.

I would not like to live in a country like Cuba, Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union, where it was considered heroic and a civic duty to spy and inform on your neighbors and acquaintances. However, neither would I feel secure in a country where permanent or temporary residents knew of the existence and potential use of devices which could kill or injure tens, hundreds, or thousands of people and would not share that information with law enforcement officials for ideological reasons.

On one hand there are security issues and, on the other, civil liberties issues. Today’s environment requires heightened security to protect the country and its people, but that comes at the possible diminution of some cherished liberties. This issue is, as it always was, what the proper balance is.

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