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Will We Be Safer?
November 16, 2001
by Rick Kropp

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Over the last few days it has been comforting, in a feel-good sort of way, that I have appeared to have taken the safe, (some would say cowardly), way out by begrudgingly accepting and justifying our new anti-terrorism laws, cleverly called the USA Patriot Act of 2001, on surveillance, detention, immigration, and wiretapping.

But while I am taking the politically safe and seemingly "patriotic" position on these new laws, will they make my family and me safer? I have to think more about that.

Down deep my civil liberties barometer appears not to be troubled by the federal government and law enforcement's sweeping new powers to monitor and detain suspected terrorists. This includes their greater powers to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and monitor their communications, including over the Internet. I hope my barometer is not broken.

But will my ignoring civil liberties in favor of these broad new powers make us any safer? I'll have to get back to you on that.

The absence of my opposition to, some would say it should be my rage against, these new laws may even extend, as troubling and disgusting as it may be, to the horrifying notion of torturing known or suspected terrorists, domestic or foreign, to obtain vital intelligence that can save lives and prevent future carnage. I don't like it, it's abhorrent, but if we get other counties to do these terrible dirty deeds for us, so be it. Just don't tell me about it or show me any news photos. Save it for history books to read fifty years from now.

But will this torturing actually make America more secure from more terrorist attacks? Can anyone give me a guarantee? Tell you the honest truth, I just don't know.

Simply put, my easy way out comes down to justifying these laws and actions because of the stark reality of our frightening world after 9/11. My rationalization also includes being highly pragmatic in combating worldwide terrorism and the terrible magnitude of the threat before us. If these laws and actions work, if they achieve their goals, then let's hold our noses, try not to vomit, and just do them.

As you can see by now, I keep trying to convince myself that the means will justify the ends if those ends will authentically make our families and us truly safer, if they actually stop future terrorist attacks on American soil and prevent more American deaths, and if we defeat the terrorists groups around the globe who want to kill us. That's a lot to ask and wish for.

So let's wait a minute now and think this whole thing through...

A minute's up. One apparent flaw of my position pops up: we won't know if these laws and actions will produce these desired ends until well into the future. Sort of saying trust the government and law enforcement now, let them have their way now to do what they want to do, and all will work out for the best in the end.

Trust and let them do what they want. Now that's a frightening proposition.

In thinking further on this notion of the ends justifying the means, a dilemma now emerges for me. What about trust in and the competency of "those in charge" of using these means?

My dilemma is that while I may feel comfortable being expedient and pragmatic, and feel justified because these ends are so very important to attain, in the final analysis I have to admit to myself that I have very little trust in and seriously question the skills and abilities of "those in charge" to use these extraordinary means to achieve these highly desired ends.

Thinking back over all my life, "those in charge" have done little to earn my trust in them and have never fully demonstrated their competencies to me.

Look at the Cold War spy games, the Vietnam War, Cambodia, Watergate, CIA scandals like drug running in Laos, John Lennon and Dr. King's having their civil rights trashed (using the old, just superseded national security laws) on orders from a man who wore a dress (not that's it's wrong for a man to wear a dress), and other FBI scandals.

Lest we forget, we also have the Iran-Contra arms scandal, our misguided foreign policy with Third World countries, especially the Islamic world, Noriega and Panama, a foreign policy not playing fair and square with many parts of the globe, and a foreign policy in the Mideast, Asia and Africa that supports and funds dictators and tyrants.

And last but not least, the vicious partisan and highly personal warfare at home between Republicans and Democrats getting higher priority (and much more press coverage) than urgent foreign and domestic policy issues, and, most recently, a fixed election and illegitimate presidency.

When it finally comes down to what's important, trust and competency are paramount.

Thus I reserve my right to change my mind. On second thought and rethinking this matter, I don't trust and have little faith in the ability of "those in charge" of our new anti-terrorism laws and obtaining vital intelligence by whatever means necessary. The national security dragnet we'll be stuck with is not only frightening, it won't work.

Upon reconsideration, I feel morally cleaner and intellectually more honest being a civil libertarian, even if it means the maintenance of our safety and our expeditious conduct of the war against terrorism become more difficult. But, as they say, that's the price we need to pay for freedom. And changing our minds.

Rick Kropp is a retired nonprofit executive director and recipient of the Dr. C. Everett Koop National Health Award.

 

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