The Civil Liberties vs. Security Conundrum

In war, the first casualty is truth. In terrorism, the first casualty is civil liberties. Societies under siege do not put a premium on terrorists' rights. Legal scholars might bemoan the attrition of liberty as a society under siege juggles freedom and order. But no one who worries about whether he is going to end up as a body part is likely to engage such concerns. Common sense and survival instincts militate against it.

If you think civil liberties have been compromised as a consequence of one attack, consider what the second one would have done. The experience of Western democracies is that one terrorism attack can create fear, but ongoing terrorist attacks create a siege mentality.

In 1972, IRA terrorism crossed the Irish Sea with the bombing at Aldershot. This carnage was followed by a series of pub bombings that gripped Britain in fear.

Parliament passed, without debate, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, incorporating measures that even its impassioned sponsors called "draconian." Western European countries confronting terrorism responded similarly. In September 1986, France thoroughly revamped its judicial system in response to terrorism by integrating the judicial and intelligence systems in ways unimaginable to Americans. Germany passed stringent laws because the 9/11 terrorists used Hamburg as a base.

Lord Shackelton, author of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, told me that there was no greater freedom than the ability to leave your home and not be blown to bits. Lord Shackelton articulated what Britons felt: without security there is no such thing as liberty.

For seven years, the Bush administration has kept us from another 9/11. If you think this is the result of dumb luck, think again. If you think the Bush administration undermined civil liberties, take a moment to reflect on what this society would look like after another attack.