The Big LieForbes.com, 09.17.01, 1:10 PM ET Must Americans sacrifice their liberty to achieve safety? The knee-jerk reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. has been to say yes. Two out of three Americans are willing to surrender civil liberties to stop terrorism, according to an ABC-Washington Post poll taken the day after the attacks.
"I'm puking every time I hear that," says Baltimore lawyer Thomas Bowden. "The idea is to compromise their lifestyle. We keep ours the same."
It's also irresponsible to suggest waiving civil rights. Take the bill passed by the Senate two days after the attack. It would permit police to tape phones and seize Internet records without a search warrant. That would leave Americans vulnerable to even greater evils.
"It is something we will all regret down the road," says Timothy Lynch, a constitutional law expert with the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Most threatened is the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches. Does that safeguard have to be scrapped to search airline passengers more thoroughly? No, it doesn't.
Airports already use machines sensitive enough to detect a box cutter. Luggage and people are already searched, but these searches don't raise constitutional issues, unless a government is involved. The Constitution restricts only official actions, not private ones. Courts agree that people can't expect much privacy in airports anyhow.
What about when police are involved? They usually need a search warrant before raiding a home or tapping the phone. But police seldom have trouble persuading a judge to sign one. The standards are lax, especially when a terrorist is involved. This week America Online (nyse: AOL - news - people) and EarthLink (nasdaq: ELNK - news - people) cooperated with the FBI investigation by providing information about certain subscribers, according to the Washington Post.
"This is already constitutional," explains lawyer James Harper, a privacy advocate and former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. So why waive the Fourth Amendment and allow the government to eavesdrop and seize records without a warrant? Is the Justice Department trying to exploit a crisis for illicit purposes?
"Sometimes they take advantage of these tragedies," sighs Lynch, citing antiterrorist laws inspired by the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1996. Sacrificing rights didn't work then and it's dishonest for law enforcement to pretend that waiving civil rights now will work, either.
Even if giving up some rights would help some, Americans shouldn't do it. That would be a victory for the terrorists, who sought to destroy a way of life. Even temporary measures tend to become permanent, as the British have discovered since the 1970s, when they waived some rights to thwart bombings by the Irish Republican Army.
Giving up rights might even lead the U.S. into autocratic rule--which is what the terrorists want and what the Founding Fathers were trying to prevent when they wrote the Bill of Rights. America is built on a healthy distrust of government power. In the words of Ben Franklin, "Those who trade liberty for security will have neither."