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RED-BLUE AMERICA: Balancing security and liberty

on April 29, 2013 10:20 AM

How well is the United States balancing security versus liberty? More than a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the American commitment to both security and liberty came under scrutiny again with the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15. The surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was not initially read his Miranda rights, because investigators chose instead to question him about possible other attacks. Officials also quickly rejected any suggestion that he face justice before a military commission instead of a civilian court.

Is the U.S. putting too much emphasis on security? On civil liberties? Or neither? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.

MATHIS: The headlines on April 16 were — understandably — so full of the news about the previous day’s bombings in Boston that an important bit of information slipped through the cracks. The Constitution Project had completed its report on how the U.S. treated detainees during the first years of the so-called “War on Terror,” and the news was not pretty.

The United States, the panel concluded, clearly and unequivocally tortured terror suspects during the Bush Administration.

“In the course of the nation’s many conflicts, there is little doubt some U.S. personnel committed brutal acts against captives, as have armies and governments throughout history,” the nonpartisan, independent panel reported.

“But there is no evidence there had ever before been the kind of detailed and considered discussions that occurred after Sept. 11, directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”

The good news? There’s no evidence anybody was waterboarded or otherwise abused during the search for the Boston bombers.

Diligent, persistent police work brought the men to justice fairly quickly. The bad news? There’s plenty of bad news.

You can’t go through the airport without being subjected to invasive body scanners. President Barack Obama has decided he has the authority to assassinate American citizens abroad, without review, if they’re suspected of terrorism. Gitmo (the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) remains open. Warrantless wiretapping is now legal. The National Security Agency is probably capturing (if not directly peeking at) every single one of our electronic communications. Civil libertarians, who celebrated the night of Obama’s election, have instead kept taking it on the jaw ever since.

Asked to balance liberty and security, our leaders have chosen security just about every time. Boston showed us there’s still room for things to get worse — but the margin remains extremely narrow. Patrick Henry, a famous patriot, once said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” America has chosen the little-known third option.

BOYCHUK: America isn’t quite as free today as it was before Sept. 11, 2001.

The country is somewhat safer for the bargain.

True, after nearly 12 years and hundreds of billions of dollars, the FBI, the New York Police Department, and other law enforcement agencies have foiled dozens or perhaps even hundreds of terrorist plots. Yet the nation’s security remains vulnerable to simple incompetence.

From time to time, we still hear about toddlers who appear on the government’s secret “no fly” list. Yet a typographical error allowed Tamerlan Tsarnaev to travel freely to Russia, where he did heaven knows what in advance of his plan to bomb the Boston Marathon this month.

It’s too much — and much too dangerous — to expect the government to know everything. But don’t they have fact checkers at the Department of Homeland Security? Meanwhile in Boston, federal, state and local authorities shut down the entire city of 1 million people to conduct house-to-house searches for Tsarnaev’s younger brother in a small section of Watertown.

Officials assured the public that the searches were “voluntary.”

Yes — in precisely the same sense that our income tax system is “voluntary.” Either comply or face the consequences.

And so YouTube is replete with cellphone videos of heavily armed SWAT officers frog-marching dowagers from their homes, hands on their heads, as they searched for a wounded 19-year-old boy who was hiding just outside their 20-block perimeter.

We should rejoice that the surviving bomber was taken alive, and we should honor the victims. Let’s also take some consolation that things could be worse, and indeed were much worse during the first and second world wars. We remain free to watch YouTube videos of our government in action. The president isn’t using the Federal Communications Commission to shut down opposition radio stations, as President Franklin Roosevelt did.

Dissenters have nothing to fear. Perhaps that’s because the government today is so large and so powerful that it has nothing to fear from dissent.

Reach Ben Boychuk at and Joel Mathis at

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