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Personal freedom vs. national security debated at forum

In the months and years following 9/11, balancing national security with personal freedom has been a challenge, a group of public policy experts told a rapt audience in Wong Auditorium during the 11th annual Catherine Stratton Lecture Oct. 26.

Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts University and former chancellor of MIT, moderated the panel discussion about steps the U.S. government has taken to tighten security since 9/11 and the resistance to those steps from civil libertarians and other concerned citizens. Bacow is an economist and lawyer recognized internationally for his expertise in dispute resolution.

Panelists were Juliette Kayyem, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; Andrew McCarthy, an attorney and senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; and Robert O'Neil, a law professor and founding director of The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia.

Since 9/11 and the Anthrax attack in late 2001, there has not been another attack on U.S. soil, said Bacow. Policies such as the Patriot Act may be the reason. "But any policy looks good if you only examine its benefits," he said. The Patriot Act--which Congress passed 45 days after 9/11--does allow the government access to personal information and items that were harder to obtain prior to the attack. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have taken issue with the act.

This is not the first time the U.S. has suspended such rights, said O'Neil. In 1862 during the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus--the right of prisoners to determine the legality of their imprisonment. At the time, no one dared speak out. In 1944, Roosevelt sent many Japanese Americans to internment camps. Again, few citizens spoke out against the action.

For O'Neil, the stark contrast between citizens' reactions then and now is comforting. "Already, our courts have interfered to a degree that is unprecedented," said O'Neil, referring to the Supreme Court decision last summer to allow prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to fight their imprisonment. "The best lessons of history teach us what to avoid and what we might do better."

McCarthy agreed that discourse about personal freedom is important, but said that during war time Americans have always been asked to give up certain rights. "We are in better shape about what we fight about," he said. "That's progress."

McCarthy led the prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. More should have been done then, McCarthy said. "September 11, 2001 really almost happened eight years earlier. It is miraculous that only six people lost their lives. We felt in our arrogance that we had thwarted that one," he said.

McCarthy worries that being reactive instead of proactive again will lead to more trouble. "It is simply not adequate to face it as a law enforcement problem. We have to have a holistic approach," he said. "A lot of what has been done has to be done if we are to be safe."

Kayyem agreed that suspension of certain rights was "likely necessary at times," but said she also believes that this threat is very different. Kayyem's concern is lack of clarity. "We are making this stuff up as we go along," she said. "We are still treading water. There is no start or finish, no mission accomplished."

She pointed to the example of Britain as it dealt with the Irish Republican Army (IRA)--a terrorist organization in Northern Ireland. "The U.K. was put in a position where they had to stretch democratic norms. They did a lot wrong," said Kayyem.

While all agreed there are no easy answers and positive arguments could be made on both sides, McCarthy assured the audience that he believes everything possible is being done to preserve freedom in this country. "People in the government hear your concerns about civil liberties," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 3, 2004 (download PDF).

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