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Giving up freedom is too high a price to pay for security

Gainsville Times | January 3 2006

For the past four years, Americans have faced the task of drawing an invisible line that runs through our government institutions, our laws and our society in general. That would be the line that separates our national security from our civil liberties.

On one side of the line are the freedoms we enjoy to live, learn, work and express ourselves, liberties that have made us the envy of the world. On the other are the sinister threats of terrorism and how our government acts to protect us from our enemies.

Where that line should be drawn is an ongoing discussion, a healthy one in normal times, but one that has sharpened into a heated debate since the terror attacks of 2001.

In recent weeks, President Bush admitted that he had authorized the National Security Agency to conduct secret wiretaps of U.S. citizens suspected of having ties to terrorist groups. While the White House argues that the investigations were above the law and well within the president's powers, others aren't so sure. At the very least, such a program straddles that imaginary line, again leading us to ponder what it means to be safe and secure at the risk of surrendering our freedoms.

There are many who have no concerns about such domestic spying, saying that only those who have terrorist ties or something to hide should fear reprisals. It is, they say, the price we must pay to safeguard ourselves from terror attacks.

Perhaps. But any government that has the power to snoop on its citizens also has the potential to abuse that power. That's why our Constitution and our privacy laws are needed to maintain a healthy balance, assuring that police departments and other agencies act within the laws they seek to enforce.

Bush could have, and has, sought warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Court, created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that grant legal permission to conduct probes of terror suspects. But he claims that the FISA provisions are too slow and awkward, and that investigators need to be able to move quickly to uncover terror plots.

The solution, in that case, should not be to circumvent the law but to change it. Bush could propose a streamlining of the FISA statutes to make sure that warrants can be obtained in a timely manner, or retroactively, as needed.

It is understandable that the president is inclined to use every tool within his reach to keep the nation safe from another attack. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred on his watch and forever will be linked to his stay in office. No leader wants to see such a tragic event happen again if there is any way to prevent it.

An investigation by the now-depaneled 9/11 Commission pointed out a number of ways the U.S. government could have thwarted, or at least anticipated, the 2001 attacks. The failure to "connect the dots" through better communication, cooperation and planning was cited as a key reason that the attacks were successful.

Rest assured, if and when terrorists strike again, even on a smaller scale, there's no doubt where the fingers would be pointed. Bush and his administration would face the wrath of an angry public and cries of "why didn't the government do something?"

So, facing the dilemma of business as usual or overreaching to save lives, Bush chose the latter by authorizing the wiretaps that he says can head off another attack. He is trying to fill what he and many others feel is his chief duty: Keeping the American people safe. He knows that if he doesn't, the buck will stop at his desk.

Thus, the responsibility of deciding where to draw that line between security and liberty ultimately is up to us. Should we as a people value our safety above all? Is avoiding another terror attack worth giving up liberties that many see as the foundation of our republic?

It is said that one of the main goals of terrorism is not just the taking of lives in a violent attack, but the effect such an attack has on the survivors. Israel, a nation surrounded by enemies, is a good example. It operates under a near-constant police state because of the daily threat of terrorist acts. It is a nation under constant siege. Is that what we aspire to be?

Americans, traditionally, do not and should not cower before our enemies. While a certain nod to security is expected, such as intense searches before boarding an airplane, we can't surrender our basic freedoms out of fear. We must prepare for the next likely attack, but we can defy the zealots who threaten us by maintaining our quest for liberty.

When we change our nation's foundation of civil liberties, we give in to our enemies. By striking a better balance between practical security and a free society, we will defeat them in the battle of ideals.

That's where we should draw that all-important line, and we should make our president and other political leaders fully aware of it.

The responsibility of deciding where to draw that line between security and liberty ultimately is up to us. Should we as a people value our safety above all? Is avoiding another terror attack worth giving up liberties that many see as the foundation of our republic?

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