Don't go overboard

Improving our security shouldn't mean undermining our freedom.

By Joe Conason

Published September 14, 2001 9:44PM (EDT)

Within hours after the World Trade Center imploded, Americans began to hear a prediction that must also be considered a threat: We should expect to relinquish some unspecified portion of our traditional liberties in the cause of thwarting terrorism. If the nation's past is prologue, we can certainly anticipate the same impulse to stifle freedom that has arisen periodically during times of war and unrest, beginning as early as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.

One of the most eloquent warnings against this authoritarian upsurge was delivered by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: "History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure."

Indeed, the United States Senate already has acted precipitately, passing legislation Thursday evening that enables the FBI to obtain warrants for electronic surveillance of e-mail and other computer communications more easily. That initiative, which may result in severe abrogations of individual rights, is probably the harbinger of a wave of new restrictions and invasions by government.

Unfortunately, the current custodians of our liberty don't exhibit any reassuring respect for the Bill of Rights. George W. Bush has expressed his frustration over excessive freedom more than once; his Vice President Dick Cheney and his Attorney General John Ashcroft both compiled dismal legislative records on civil liberties and civil rights; and with far too few exceptions, members of both parties on Capitol Hill suddenly seem eager to enact Draconian measures.

But before we assent to any such infringements, we ought to consider how little has been done to ensure our safety without affronting the Constitution. The most pertinent example is the ludicrously lax security that until now has prevailed in air transport.

Anyone who travels frequently by air, particularly within the borders of the United States, has observed the underpaid and poorly trained "security staff" whose job is to prevent the kind of incidents that occurred on Tuesday. They receive the minimum wage, and in turn provide minimum service, all because the private companies that hire them are seeking maximum profits. Not incidentally, this episode represents the most glaring failure of "privatization" -- at an extraordinary cost of life and property -- in the short history of that ideological fad. Consider the contrast between the remarkable performance of the unionized civil servants of New York's police and fire departments with the daily ineptitude of airport security firms.

Clearly, the provision of security at airports and on airplanes is a federal function and should always have been handled by professional law enforcement authorities, especially in the era of terrorist skyjackings. Trying to perform this task on the cheap led inevitably to tragedy; doing it right would be considerably more expensive, but would in no way threaten public liberties.

Perhaps billions would have to be spent on higher wages, thorough training and the creation of a special police force to oversee airport safety. Perhaps billions more would be needed to set up sufficient numbers of checkpoints at each airport to minimize delays for passengers and freight. But even at the most extravagant estimate, those costs dwindle to insignificance when compared with the amount that the White House proposes to spend on a missile shield that will protect no one.

An appropriate model might be the level of protection that members of Congress enjoy in the buildings where they serve. Anyone wishing to enter a House or Senate office building, or the seat of democracy itself, is subjected to a thorough search by armed and competent officers of the Capitol police. Inconvenient as those searches can be, they are an accepted part of daily life in Washington -- and nobody regards them as an affront to public freedom. (The Bill of Rights does not guarantee anyone the right to carry a weapon or an explosive device into the Capitol.)

Federal, state and local governments can institute policing procedures at airports that would close the breaches exploited by the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attack. Whatever loopholes are left should be closed by the airlines, which owe their passengers and staff, let alone their insurers, a substantial improvement in security. Nobody's freedom, for instance, would be harmed by sealing the pilot's cabin against intruders well before takeoff, or by installing signal devices that would instantly alert authorities to a crime in progress.

Air traffic control is still another point of vulnerability that can be enhanced without infringing on civil liberties. Controllers have been stressed and understaffed ever since their union was broken by the Reagan administration. Any notions about privatizing the controllers should be forgotten now, when they must be strengthened and integrated closely with police and military forces. It will cost more -- but again, the price is insignificant compared with outlandish space weapons and schemes for omniscient surveillance.

Our leaders never tire of telling us that America is the wealthiest, most technologically advanced nation in the history of the world, as well as the most free. Now is the time to tell them that we can afford to protect our people and our territory without undermining our freedom.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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