Cultural Revolutions

Grimmest Moment in Modern American History

The World Trade Center attack may prove to be one of the grimmest moments in modern American history. Understandably, most Americans are enraged and demand revenge, while despair and fear are evident even in people who, only a very short time ago, managed to maintain a fairly detached view of the political scene. In this atmosphere, very few are prepared to complain about the strict new security precautions that are being imposed at airports and public facilities. Quite apart from the grief they feel for the victims of terrorism, citizens who would normally be sensitive to government encroachments on civil liberties believe that rights have to be yielded in order to secure better protection.

In theory, this idea of a tradeoff is not unreasonable; in practice, the notion is poorly founded. When rights are eroded in the heat of war and terrorism, these changes rarely produce any practical benefit beyond a general sense of communal sacrifice. And once they are gone, these rights and liberties are very, very difficult to regain. To take an obvious example of a futile expansion of official powers: Just what has been gained by the massive extension of identity cheeks at airports and the requirement that travelers carry official identity cards? Anybody who believes that such controls will prevent terrorism is obviously deluded: As eery antiterrorism professional knows, the first requirement for a serious terrorist is the ability to procure...

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