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Civil Liberties in War Time
Interview with Robert A. Levy
Robert A. Levy is a Senior Fellow in Constitutional
Studies at the world renowned Cato Institute located in Washington,
D.C. The Cato Institute seeks to broaden the parameters of public
policy debate to allow consideration of the traditional American
principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets
and peace. Toward that goal, the Institute strives to achieve greater
involvement of the intelligent, concerned lay public in questions
of policy and the proper role of government.
Please describe your organization in detail.
The Cato Institute is a nonprofit educational research institution
that focuses on issues concerning private property, free market,
limited government, and individual rights. http://www.cato.org/
What, if any, changes to civil liberties have you witnessed
since September 11, 2001?
Since September 11, there has been a shift toward a government role
in protecting citizens from foreign predators. With this increased
protection, tension has increased between security and civil liberties.
Whenever the government determines that it is necessary to compromise
civil liberties, the government must "jump through" certain
loopholes. They must convince the public that they will be protected,
and they must prove that there is no better way in achieving this
goal than curbing civil liberties.
Also, the government must maintain a separation of powers. In the
American constitutional system, we have a division of government.
However, since 9/11, the executive branchespecially the Justice
Departmenthas taken unilateral actions in setting, enforcing
and reviewing rules. In such a scenario, one branch of government
exerts too much power and is therefore overstepping its boundaries.
What direction is the nation going? How do you feel about
According to recent polls, the people of America are willing to
give up civil liberties because of the fear of potential or definite
threat. While it is okay for individuals to choose to give up their
own individual civil liberties, it is unacceptable for individuals
to choose to give up civil liberties of others. Thus, it is necessary
to reflect on the wisdom imparted by the framers who established
our constitutional government. Our representative government was
established to shield citizens from the temporary passions of the
majority. Thus, we must fall back on the protective device of our
nation: the Constitution. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "The
price of liberty is eternal vigilance."
Is the implementation of national IDs possible? How would
national IDs affect citizens of the United States?
Yes it is possible, and it is potentially abusive. There are three
major levels of concern:
1- IDs used to prove who we say we are (ie- drivers license, passports)
2- IDs that have encoded material through biometric indicators.
Databases only contain information of bad people. While this is
somewhat acceptable, there still exists a potential for abuse. Who
monitors this database to make sure that the government does not
abuse it? What punishments would exist for the abuse?
3- Databases on every member of society. These IDs would include
financial, legal, and personal records among other things. This
would provide a dossier for the government to track an individual's
What is a possible alternative or solution to the underlying
The most acceptable alternative would be the second form of Identification.
With proper safeguards, individual can be protected under this system.
Furthermore, perpetrators of the law lose certain rights when they
violate the legal code.
Is there a way to strike a balance between maintaining civil
liberties and securing our nation?
It is necessary to weigh costs and benefits. In our current situation,
there are many gray areas, but we must always maintain an allegiance
to the terms set forth by the founding documents of our society.
Is the infringement of privacy a necessary evil in maintaining
Airport security is perfectly justified in the status quo. This
is not racial profiling because it does not impose a major rights
violation on citizens. In the case of airport security, they are
simply trying to narrow the scope of violence. However, subpoenas,
detainment, and custodial interrogation are unacceptable in scenarios
where people are not allowed to walk away from the situation.
In what direction do you feel Congress will steer the nation
in the upcoming Congressional session?
The Congress will probably support military action in Iraq. However,
all further actions that cause a potential or definite violation
of civil liberties should be subject to sunset provisions (they
expire after a specified period of time). The USA Patriot Act currently
allows law enforcement officials to trample on the rights of individuals.
What role can citizens play in the struggle between civil
liberties and security?
Citizens should always be aware of civil liberties violations and
make such violations known. Citizens can contact their Congressional
Representatives, write letters to the editor in newspapers, and
call into radio talk shows.
Submitted by: EJ Stern, Intern, summer 2002