Thursday, July 28, 2005

Liberty and Security VS. Terror – an American Perspective by Bill West

I wonder how the devil is feeling nowadays, since his lair has frozen over. The likes of me, a 29 year law enforcement veteran who spent half his career working organized crime and national security cases, has found common ground with the ACLU. I’m talking about the random police searches of bags conducted in the New York subway system recently implemented as a result of the twin terrorist attacks against the London transit system in July. The New York authorities claim the inspections are random and reasonable. The ACLU and other civil libertarians claim the searches violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. I suppose I’m really somewhere in the middle, since I believe the random inspections will do little more than divert critical law enforcement resources from more important functions while managing to slightly harass the law abiding citizenry. The matter might eventually be settled in the courts.

I’m hardly one who can be accused of being soft on national security and terrorism. I spent half my law enforcement career specifically targeting such issues and since my retirement I’ve remained active as a counter-terrorism consultant and have written numerous articles defending the Government’s post 9/11 efforts in the war on radical Islamic terror. That said, career law enforcement officers, contrary to what many on the left may believe, have a unique and personal perspective on Constitutional liberties. When one is granted the authority and power to deprive others of their Constitutional rights, including under certain circumstances the most precious rights of liberty and even life, one quickly learns to appreciate the exceptional and genuine value of those rights we all enjoy in this great country of ours.

It is within that context I see the baggage inspection in the New York subway system as something of a precursor to that larger slippery slope. After the London attacks, very much has been made of the fact the British cops were able to utilize their CCTV system to quickly identify the bombing suspects and aggressively move forward in their investigation. That is true. It’s also true that London’s 200,000 some CCTV cameras did not prevent either the 7/7 or 7/21 attacks. Yet, on all the talking head shows here in the US, we are hearing security experts and politicians of nearly every stripe call for a huge increase in CCTV coverage everywhere in the US, as though cameras on every street corner will keep us safe.

Right after the 7/7 attacks in London, I wrote an article about enhancing security for transit systems by increasing manpower and training for transit police and security forces, especially utilizing more plainclothes officers and Israeli-tested behavior profile surveillance techniques. Increasing uniformed patrols is a deterrent. Bad guys knowing there are more undercover officers watching them is a deterrent. When those trained officers spot someone acting in a suspicious manner, and they can articulate those suspicions, they can then legally detain and search those persons under what would be reasonable circumstances within Constitutional constraints, and still provide enhanced security for all of us without mass intrusion.

No matter how it’s packaged, even random “voluntary” searches at a police checkpoint invariably makes the public feel subservient, not served and protected. It is the sight of armed uniformed officers at a fixed checkpoint requiring submission to intrusive authority before onward passage is allowed that instinctively produces the “us verses them” reaction. Seeing those same uniformed officers, even if they are heavily armed, on routine patrol or standing fixed observation post among the crowd has another effect…it reassures the public and provides them a sense of protection and security and of being served, not being subjected to authority.

There are, of course, places in American society where exceptional security measures are required. We already accept such measures in commercial aviation. No one questions such procedures at nuclear power plants and US military installations. We probably hope for the same at chemical plants.

It is that mass intrusion, for security, into our individual liberties by government, even if it’s slow and subtle, that should concern all of us. We do live in the 21st century, and the founders of our country never envisioned the possibility of mass destruction, but this is still America and we live under that remarkable document known as the Constitution. Unfortunately, so many Americans have so little understanding of a document which perhaps means more to all of us than any other. Americans must demand security and protection from their government, at all levels. That is the most primary and basic duty and function of government. However, that security and protection must not be done at the expense of individual liberties provided by our Constitution, and Americans should remember that while there are many good people in government service, in America, government itself exists to serve the people, not the other way around, and unfortunately sometimes even some of those good people in government forget that.

Random subway searches and many thousands of CCTV cameras might seem like easy and quick fixes; but maybe they are just that, easy and quick instead of requiring political “leaders” and senior government officials making truly hard choices and implementing law enforcement and security procedures that genuinely protect people and freedoms at the same time.

Do most Americans really want police and security officers watching them on a TV camera as they walk down every street in every city in the country? As they walk into every building, get into every stairwell and elevator? What happens when the innocent college student running late for an exam nervously fumbles in his backpack and wires from his iPod show up on the street CCTV as he looks for a book on his way to school? The student just happens to fit a general description of a general suicide bomber alert issued the day before, yet he’s been attending that school for several years and walking the same route all that time.

Totally innocent behavior, under circumstances that would otherwise go unnoticed, because they were observed by a CCTV camera and security officer, would likely result in the innocent student being accosted by police on his way to class. Hopefully, the responding officers would act with calm and professionalism and the student would submit to their directives. Consider, however, the scenario if the student, in a rush to get to class, thinking of other matters on a crowded street, did not initially hear the officer’s command to stop. Very quickly the situation could escalate into unnecessary tragedy, all because there was a TV camera on the street.

I know there could be other arguments. What if the “student” was a real suicide bomber and was identified and stopped because of the security cameras. The potential scenarios are endless. The point really is, what are Americans ready to do relative to their security? How much individual liberty are we ready to give up to be secure? This is a difficult question.

I wish more Americans truly understood how much personal freedom they are guaranteed under the Constitution. Terrorism threats argue in favor of more government and security. Some would argue that is part of the victory the terrorists seek against us. Ironically, the true American spirit has always argued in favor of less government and reliance on individual citizens to be responsible for their own lives. That is a historically novel concept, but one that served this Republic well for its first 200 years. Perhaps, even in the 21st century with the scourge of modern terrorism, there is still a place for that uniquely American sense of personal freedom.

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