Are Our Liberties In Peril?


Almost as soon as the planes struck their targets on September 11, there was renewed debate about a question Americans have grappled with since our country was born: How do we preserve the balance between personal liberty and collective security? There were immediate calls for loosened restraints on vviretapping and tighter controls on the citizenry. We should strengthen our laws,” said Attorney General John Ashcroft, “to increase the ability of the Department of Justice and its component agencies to identify, prevent and punish terrorism.” Which also means, of course, their ability to more easily and closely scrutinize the doings of you and me.

The historian David McCullough, speaking on television after the attack, warned that the coming struggle could “also mean a curtailing…maybe even eviscerating of the open society” we know. Jeffrey Rosen, a senior editor of The New Republic, urged a rejection of the “excessive and ineffective responses of the past,” the sort of “sweeping increases in domestic surveillance that change the character of civic life.” Sen. Joseph Biden, Jr., of Delaware said that “if we alter our basic freedom, our civil liberties, change the way we function as a democratic society, then we will have lost the war before it has begun in earnest. ”

Now that the new century has brought with it a threat as daunting as any the old had to offer, what can the past tell us about how our basic liberties (which are, after all, just that, basic to our national identity) will fare in the trial ahead? And the past answers: Not so well. But there’s more to it. In the longer run they may be enhanced, and even redefined, in ways that expand our ever-evolving notion of what America means.

American history certainly reflects a tendency to curtail civil rights during times of war in the interest of safeguarding freedom over the long term. In the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus throughout vast areas of the Union and ordered the military detention of hundreds of suspected Confederate sympathizers, including 31 members of the Maryland legislature, and an Ohio congressman, Clement Vallandigham. Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled Lincoln’s suspension of the writ unconstitutional. The President ignored the ruling.

Half a century later, President Woodrow Wilson ordered large-scale crackdowns on groups like the Socialist party and the Industrial Workers of the World for opposing the First World War. Many historians believe the mass violation of civil liberties during the war and in the “Red Scare” that followed it accounts for the stifled political atmosphere of the 1920s. The haunting figure of Mac McCreary, a Socialist and Wobbly who is a key personage in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, all but disappears after the first volume. So did American radicalism. For a time.

Certainly the most striking example of this tendency to roll back civil liberties during wartime was the internment of Japanese-American citizens in the early 19405. It may well be a sign of America’s civic health that political leaders and public intellectuals are today more circumspect about limiting civil liberties in times of national crisis. But even raising the question pits freedom and national survival against each other and assumes that the exigencies of war invite nothing but perils to American democracy.

History tells us something different. Several of America’s past wars have forced citizens to struggle over their rationale for fighting. And out of these internal debates have come vigorous new ideas about the meaning of liberty and freedom.

Take the War for Independence. Most American revolutionaries began the 17705 determined to separate from Britain and establish a pure republic. The historian Gordon Wood writes that the ideal society they envisioned required “a particular sort of egalitarian and virtuous people: independent, propertyholding citizens who were willing to sacrifice many of their private, selfish interests for the res publica, the good of the whole community.”

At the start of the rebellion, American revolutionaries viewed the national community as organic and feared that the existence of private or group interests might undermine the nascent re- public. To be sure, their ideology was radical for its time. “Equality lay at [its] heart,” says Wood. “It meant a society whose distinctions were based only on merit.” It meant an end to monarchy and aristocracy. Yet republicanism was also antidemocratic: It rejected the idea that a single nation could entertain diverse economic, religious, and political interests.

The Civil War was an unfinished revolution, but none of what it accomplished had been imaginable in 1860.

Revolutionary ideology wasn’t a constant. The very act of rebellion forced colonial leaders to argue over and hash out the meaning of freedom. The historian Bernard Bailyn believes that on ” fundamental issues—representation and consent, the nature of constitutions and of rights, the meaning of sovereignty—… the colonists probe[d] and alter[ed] the inheritance of thought concerning liberty and its preservation.” This is surely what Benjamin Rush had in mind in 1787 when he declared, “The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American revolution.”