The Intersection Between Civil Liberties & Security: How Far Should Government Go to Protect Us?


The issue of civil liberties crops up in many essays and comments on PolicyMic. We all cherish and demand the rights afforded to us under the Constitution, but there is great disagreement about the appropriate extent of government intrusion in our lives. This essay will explore the reasons why this issue has been so controversial and discuss some of the activities that precipitate great passion.

Americans must be more cooperative with each other in the search for appropriate government intervention. Security is just as important as civil liberties, but currently, our leaders are sometimes too reactive when tragedy befalls us, often times over legislating against new threats to our freedom. Our leaders and lawmakers must have foresight and enact legislation that protects us from criminals and terrorists, but does not drill too deep into our private lives or violate any provisions of the Constitution.

The most important perception that serves as the foundation of one’s tolerance for intervention is the role of government in our society and whether it is our friend or our enemy. The latter causes many to be overly cautious about controversial intrusion including wire-taping, drones, GPS devices and Transportation Security Administration airport searches.

There is a direct correlation between intrusion and safety that should be considered by every citizen, Congress, and Supreme Court. Generally, the more security that is applied to a specific threat, the least likely it will occur. Greater security creates concern among criminals and terrorists about apprehension and decreases their chances of success. The security we encounter at the airport is an excellent example of this phenomenon.

Since 9/11, there have been no successful airline terrorist attacks. The reason for this phenomenon is easily traced back to the intrusive searches by the TSA, security on the aircraft including secure doors to the cockpit and the presence of air marshals and the yeoman efforts of the authorities to thwart terrorist plots early on. But, what is the price to us as citizens? Many would say the searches are overly intrusive and violate our privacy rights. Others would say it is all worth the inconvenience for increased safety.

Wire-tapping and GPS monitoring have already been vetted by the SCOTUS. The decisions are that these activities by our authorities are in violation of our civil liberties without court approval. What is the price of these decisions? Unfettered actions by the authorities in these areas would likely result in more arrests and less crime. Given that they would only be applied to known criminals (assuming the government is working exclusively for our safety), why the concern? And, there seems to be an inconsistency between the oversight of wiretapping and GPS devices, and searches at the airport.

I thought the PolicyMic debate about the use of unmanned drones  in America was particularly thought-provoking. Drones would monitor every citizen, just as all passengers are being screened at the airport. So the “political correctness” standard would be met. Why then would drones patrolling our skies be a violation of our civil liberties? One concern given was that lustful drone operators could spy on sunbathing women.

The scale of government intervention ranges from a totalitarian environment where security is high and crime is low, a la Iraq during the Hussein era, or China today, to an anarchistic state where laws are lax and everyone can do as they please. As Americans, almost all of us believe that neither extreme would be ideal.

I propose a continuing reassessment of intrusive government activities meant to keep us safe. I suggest we all begin our assessments assuming that our government is our ally, not our enemy. This process should get us to a reasonable compromise over time and a balance between security and liberty.

Photo Credit: Seadevi