Civil Liberties In The Wake Of Boston
Are civil liberties once again at risk in the wake of the bombing attack in Boston?
George Washington University Political Science Professor Danny Hayes argues that concerns that the events in Boston will lead to a further erosion of civil liberties in the name of “safety” are overblown:
After 9/11, concern over terrorism skyrocketed. In a Gallup survey fielded in the days before the attack, less than one-half of one percent of Americans said terrorism was the country’s most important problem. But in October 2001, 46 percent did. These worries boosted support for legislation, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, that expanded law enforcement’s power to investigate suspected terrorism, even as those measures were criticized for eroding civil liberties protections.
In a survey conducted between November 2001 and January 2002, political scientists Darren Davis and Brian Silver designed a series of questions to explore the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties. They began by asking people whether they agreed more with the statement that “in order to curb terrorism in this country, it will be necessary to give up some civil liberties” or that “we should preserve our freedoms above all, even if there remains some risk of terrorism.” Forty-five percent of Americans chose the first option, indicating a willingness to give up some freedoms in exchange for greater security.
When respondents were asked about the tradeoffs involving specific measures, there was wide variation. Davis and Silver found that very few Americans – eight percent – believed that the government should have the power to investigate people who participate in nonviolent protests. And just 18 percent said they supported racial profiling. But when asked, for instance, whether they agreed that “high school teachers have the right to criticize America’s policies toward terrorism” or that “high school teachers should defend America’s policies in order to promote loyalty to our country,” 60 percent said teachers should back the government.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest influence on whether people were willing to offer pro-security over pro-civil liberties responses was their fear of a second attack. Respondents who believed another terrorist act was imminent were more likely to support tradeoffs in favor of security. Importantly, Davis and Silver found that the relationship was strongest among people who expressed high levels of political trust: People who believe the government typically does the right thing and who were fearful of another terrorist attack were the most willing to relinquish civil liberties protections.
These numbers are quite understandable, of course. Outside of relatively small attacks such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the bombing in Oklahoma City, the US homeland had been relatively immune from terrorist attacks up until that fateful day. There were attacks overseas in the intervening years, of course, such as the Khobar Tower bombing, the African Embassy bombings, and the attack on the USS Cole but these were removed geographically from the American people and weren’t portrayed as some kind of wider threat to American interests. In retrospect, of course, it seems clear that those attacks were indeed part of al Qaeda’s wider goals, but we didn’t know that at the time. Perceptions changed significantly on that September morning in 2001, though. All of a sudden, the terrorism was brought home to the United States in an attack that led to the largest loss of American life on American soil since the attack on Pearl Harbor some 60 years previously. The sheer scope of the attack, and the fact that we didn’t know if there were future attacks coming, were enough to cause the public to generally accept many measures supposedly designed to keep them safe from the PATRIOT Act to the Bush Administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques and the establishment of a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay where suspected al Qaeda members would be held for essentially indefinite periods of time. Much as Americans during World War II accepted things like rationing for the war effort, Americans in the post-9/11 world largely accepted the government’s effort to acquire increased powers in the name of fighting the “war on terror.”
Hayes contends that things are different this time, and that the Boston attack will not lead to significant threats to civil liberties, and cites polls showing that the American public is more skeptical of efforts by the government to increase its surveillance and other powers now than they were twelve years ago. Accepting for the sake of argument that the poll numbers that Hayes cites are accurate, I think he’s being far too optimistic about the potential threats to civil liberties that may result from this incident in the end. First of all, I think it’s far too early to know what impact Boston will have on public opinion in the long run. While it’s true that the attack in Boston was not even close to being on the scale of the September 11th attacks, we don’t know at this point what further investigation of the attack will turn up. For example, if this was, as evidence seems to suggest, a “lone wolf” attack planned and carried out by the Tsarnaev brothers on their own, it points out the danger that self-radicalization may pose and how difficult it will be for law enforcement to track down similarly motivated people. If it turns out that there were other parties involved, then it raises the prospect that we’ll be facing the threat of terrorism from the Caucuses, thus bringing to our shores the kind of people who pulled of the massacre at the school in Beslan. Either of these possibilities raises the prospect that Federal and local authorities will seek to grant further authority to law enforcement that will chip away at the privacy that we once took to be commonplace.
The second factor that I think Hayes ignores here is that government authorities are likely to react to Boston however they see fit regardless of what the polls happen to say. The PATRIOT Act, for example, sailed through Congress with almost no debate and very little discussion about what was contained in the bill in the wake of 9/11. Between the House and the Senate, there were only 67 votes against the bill, and the bill raced through both chambers so quickly that it’s fairly clear that very few Congressmen and Senators had any real idea what they were voting for. The implications of that event have been far-reaching in the manner in which they have enhanced the power of law enforcement, especially given the fact that in the intervening years the powers granted by the PATRIOT Act have been used far more in non-terrorism cases than they have been used in terrorism cases. The chances that we’ll ever see those powers reduced are pretty much non-existent.
There is some good news is all of this, I suppose. The polls that Hayes cites do show that the American are far more skeptical about increasing the surveillance powers of the state than they were in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks. It shows that there is a healthy degree of skepticism among the general public regarding the idea that all we need to do is give up just a little bit more of our liberty and we’ll be safe. That’s a good thing, and perhaps it will stand as a bulwark against further intrusions by the state. As always, however, and as Thomas Jefferson once put it, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.