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Civil Rights v. National Security

— January 12, 2015
Civil Rights March 1963 - Library of Congress
Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. (August, 1963)

So often in times of danger or fear, civil rights come into conflict with security interests.  We forego some civil rights – usually our rights to privacy, expression, or due process – because we think such sacrifice will make us safer.  Sometimes it can, sometimes it does.  And sometimes, dissenters will ask, “If not these civil rights, what do national security organizations seek to protect?”  That’s a good point.

Of course, this issue is not uniquely American.  Today, the Associated Press reported on the face of the civil rights v. national security struggle as experienced around the world.

AP: “The threat of Islamic extremism has justice officials balancing tougher law enforcement against the need to protect civil liberties, and that balance is struck in myriad ways around the world. The FBI’s collection of demographic data on U.S. communities has drawn criticism from civil liberties groups, while Australia has been accused of reversing the onus of proof by demanding that travelers prove they have legitimate reason for visiting a terrorist hotspot.”


“Dozens of Australians are suspected of fighting in the battlefields of Iraq andSyria, then coming home. It’s illegal for Australians to fight in foreign militias, but authorities have had difficulty proving such charges.”  To this, the Australian government responded in the following way:

“A new law bars Australians from traveling to places the foreign minister declares to be ‘terrorism hotspots,’ unless they provide a legitimate reason for visiting. Only one hotspot has been declared: the Syrian province of al-Raqqa, an Islamic State movement stronghold. [And the] foreign minister has canceled more than 70 passports of Australians suspected of fighting in Iraq and Syria or attempting to do so, and recently gained the power to suspend passports quickly.

Another new law bars anyone who discloses information related to “special intelligence operations,” a secret category defined by the attorney general.”

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and an uprising of religious fundamentalism on the continent, national security has been beefed up.  France has deployed over 10,000 troops to secure its cities, including 4,700 troops to secure some 700 Jewish schools.

Again, the AP: “Counterterrorism intelligence efforts in western Europe have become more challenging as an increasing number of mostly young Muslims travel to Syria to join forces with the Islamic State group and other militant organizations fighting the regime there. Each country uses a different system to keep track of suspected extremists. Germany does not keep a centralized watch list at the federal level, but the security service of each state maintains lists of people considered dangerous.

Britain took unilateral steps last week to tighten up its border checks at seaports and train stations.

Spain raised its terror threat level, not because of a specific plot, but because of a general sense that all of Europe – not just France – was at heightened risk. Spain also stepped up security at transportation hubs like airports and train stations, nuclear power plants, energy networks and water sources.
At the European Union level, fighting terrorism remains an issue of national governments but the EU has tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to dovetail those different approaches to improve coordination among its 28 member nations. For three years now, the EU has been discussing a way to increase airline data sharing but so far has been blocked by the EU legislature over privacy objections. In the wake of the attacks, EU leaders have vowed to speed up efforts to reach a breakthrough on the issue.”

What do you think of giving up civil rights in the interest of national security?  Do you mind the NSA’s dragnet-style search of electronic data and communication?  Does the risk for terrorism outweigh the cost of waiving civil rights?  Is there middle ground?  I mean these questions seriously, please leave comments below.

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