Originally created 01/17/04

Tilt toward security



The world changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001.

The sad irony is, most of the world doesn't seem to realize it.

When terrorists flew passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, taking out 3,000 innocents, it became immediately obvious that in the always-delicate balance between freedom and security, the pendulum, especially in the United States, would have to swing decidedly in the direction of security.

The first manifestation of this change was the arrest and detention of hundreds of foreigners, mostly Muslims and Arabs, in the days following the attack. Civil-liberties organizations and freedom-of-information groups were fit to be tied that the detainees were held in secret, without being charged, while access to legal counsel was sharply curtailed.

Nobody but the government knew exactly how many were being held or what their names were. Lawyers for a Washington study center sued to get detainees' names and other basic information, but they lost in the lower courts and on appeal.

When the U.S. Supreme Court let the lower court rulings stand earlier this month, it marked a victory for the Bush administration's post-9-11 actions to ensure a higher degree of security.

The Justice Department argued that revealing the names of the detainees would, according to Attorney General John Ashcroft, give terrorists "a virtual road map to our investigation that could have allowed them to chart a potentially deadly detour around our efforts."

Of course, it's distressing for freedom-loving Americans to see their government engaging in secret arrests and detentions. But right after the 9-11 attack, no one was sure how many or to what extent Arab visitors on our soil might be involved - or what might happen next.

Given the severity of the situation, and the potential for new attacks, the dragnet was entirely justified as a precaution. Such profiling may offend the sensibilities of the politically correct, but the courts were right to make the ruling they did.

Moreover, these were not American citizens whose civil liberties were suspended; they were foreigners, possibly dangerous - and thus should not be entitled to the same rights as a U.S. citizen.

Most of the detainees were held on civil immigration violations and eventually were deported. Others were held on criminal charges and some as material witnesses.

No one was ever charged with terrorism. Critics point to this as proof that the government overreacted. But would it not have been more dangerous to under-react? As the saying goes, better safe than sorry.

One reason the Supreme Court didn't take up the issue is that unless there's another 9-11 type attack, it's highly unlikely there'll be another secret roundup of foreign citizens. But if there is such an attack, an important security precedent has been set.

Now the rest of the world has to get with it. Quit complaining about new U.S. security measures for air travelers, and start imposing some of them in your countries, too.

By the time the terrorists slip through another country's fingers, it may be too late.