Civil liberty v. security—post 9/11

Set to a hip-hop rhythm, the video opened with an arresting image of a hooded man gesturing with a machine gun in time to the beat. The music was catchy, the lyrics unambiguous: “Kill the crusaders. Be prepared for battle with the infidels. Throw them in the fire.”

“ As you can see, there are bad people out there,” said Daniel Sutherland, as the Al Qaeda recruitment video drew to a close. Sutherland, a civil rights officer in the Department of Homeland Security, showed the video at Penn Law’s June 18 conference on Homeland Security and Civil Liberties, co-hosted with the U.S. Army War College and ISTAR. “Reason will not reach these people,” he continued. “They are planning ways to kill you right now.”

Sutherland’s point, though—and the overall message of the conference—was that while the dangers of terrorism are real, our emotional response must not blind us to issues of civil rights and civil liberty. Acknowledging our natural tendency to condemn all members of a group because of the actions of some, Sutherland insisted that we must do the opposite. “We have to go back to our roots to live out what America is all about. We have got to live to the better principles.”

Other speakers, including experts from the military, legal academia and the civil rights bar, echoed that sentiment, though many were less sanguine about the current administration’s commitment to those “better principles.”

Taking liberties?

Penn Law Senior Fellow David Rudovsky raised concerns about the Bush administration’s disregard of laws and treaties that protect human rights, and its attempt to create “a terrorism exception to the Constitution.” After 9/11, he noted, we were assured that the detentions of numerous Arabs and Muslims were justified because of the threat to national security. “We now know their only common characteristic was ethnic identity…and none were connected with 9/11. I don’t expect the government to bat 1,000. I don’t expect it to bat 500. In this case, it batted zero.”

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, talked about the long-term threats to personal freedom inherent in increased surveillance. Our current unease, he argued, isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, either. “Decisions made now as to whether we require a national identity card, for example, could be with us for a very long time, far beyond the end of the current period of crisis.”

When an audience member accused the panel of being more concerned with debating the nuances of the first amendment than the fact that terrorists could be planning another colossal attack on our cities, Penn Law Professor Seth Kreimer had a ready reply. “The concern here,” he said, “is not to abandon the very real need to preserve ourselves, it’s to do so without abandoning our freedom with it.” Applause filled the room.

Originally published on July 8, 2004