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For the Greater Good?: Individual Rights in the Age of Terrorism, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1221

Essay

Introduction

As has become evident in recent years, a distinct dilemma arises in regard to individual, or constitutional, liberties when national security is perceived to be at risk. The dilemma, moreover., appears to be rooted in the basic foundation going to the establishing and maintenance of those liberties and rights; namely, that national security must be in place in order for individuals to enjoy the freedoms that often are thwarted by the efforts seen as necessary to preserve that security. An inherent ambiguity lies in this arrangement, and it is one very much on the minds of United States citizens following 9/11 and the measures enacted in response to it. The question arises: when are rights immutable when there is a danger that the society affording them is at risk? Consequently, debate rages and degrees of uncomfortable compromise are reached. In all of this, however, it must be eventually understood that the key to the dilemma lies precisely in that compromise. It is agreeable to perceive rights as fundamental and inviolable, but such a view ignores the reality that no human rights are safe, or even possible, when the nation providing them is in actual danger. For the society to function in a way accommodating all concerns, the members of that society must accept that the rights it cherishes require reasonable levels of compromise, even as such compromises must be conducted only through careful assessment of what may be reasonably adjusted to secure the nation.

Discussion

What renders the subject of individual rights and national security so sensitive is a dominant feeling in the nation of a kind of moral absolutism. The U.S. is a country emphatically based, at least ideologically, on a foundation of asserting personal liberties, and this has long carried with it powerful associations removed from actual government policies or histories, if nonetheless influenced by them. More exactly, the prevalent idea of human rights as being fundamentally inviolable evolved from religious forces in centuries past; human beings, it was felt, were endowed with freedoms and rights because this was the will of God. Moreover, this adamant view also arose as a response to governments seeking to curtail human rights, or societal equality (Bowie, Simon, 2008, pp. 55-56). Consequently, as the U.S. came into being, its assertion of these principles was fused within its literal, constitutional foundation. This is important, for it goes to just how vehemently people view their own liberties. They are not, in simple terms, merely the consequences of government policy created by its people; they are deeply embedded ideologies reflecting belief systems removed from government, even as they are demanded to be represented in every policy the government makes.

When the country is threatened, then, it is inevitable that the reactive measures to enhance security must challenge these convictions. This has consistently been the case since the terrorist attacks of 2001 quickly led to the enactment of the Patriot Act. There is precedent, also, for the moral and judicial difficulties arising from threats to national security. What these precedents reveal, however, is a failure to reconcile commitments to rights with security policy. In both the World War II Japanese internment cases and the 1950s anti-Communist agenda of the McCarthy era, the courts essentially upheld whatever policies and statutes the government deemed as necessary to protect national interests, and human rights were widely violated (Moore, 2005, p. 417). More recently, and largely reacting to, and relying upon, modern terrorism as being technologically driven, the Patriot Act incorporated elements of scrutiny essentially creating new forms of intrusion. The immediate fear generated by the terrorism, in no uncertain terms, allowed the Bush administration to enact policies in direct opposition to judicial practice and ethics, in that probable cause was deemed as unnecessary in electronic surveillance of suspected individuals (Moore, 2005, p. 426). It was inevitable that, as time passed and fears relaxed, public reaction would be increasingly critical of such policy. On a fundamental level, citizens began expressing that their government was eroding its very reason for existence, if security translated to negating constitutional protections. Here, then, the moral component to individual rights is all the more brought into play, and the government is seen as taking measures it has no “right” to take.

There is, moreover, an inherent issue even in accepted compromise, when the people agree to the new policies. Many citizens willingly surrender certain “rights” in the interests of national security because there remains a sense that the checks built into the judicial system will invariably and consistently monitor just how legitimate certain policies are. People tend to accept that, if Congress permits surveillance on email and phone exchanges, it is nonetheless doing so based on a reasonable measure of justification in each case. There is a trust in the system, and the trust is reinforced by evidence of judicial awareness. In 2001, for example, the Supreme Court held that the technology allowing for infrared heat searches in a home constitutes a legal search, and is protected by the Fourth Amendment (Etzioni, Marsh, 2003, p. 17). Nonetheless, this in itself creates the important concern that circumstances alter the baseline of privacy expectations and parameters of rights, simply because a question was decided that expanded the ideas of what those parameters are.

What then evolves is a reinforcement of the process mentioned earlier, in that a consistent and cooperative effort between the government and the people is necessary to ameliorate, if not eliminate, the ambiguity at the heart of the issue. If the government enacts unprecedented policies that threaten rights, it is incumbent upon the people to continually assess just how crucial these measures are, and respond accordingly. If risks of danger generate the need for heightened security, both people and government are equally obligated to accept and create the compromises that best go to the interests of both concerns. It is regrettable but true, that human rights are only as strong as the society that promotes them. Consequently, the safeguarding of that society, even as it requires drastic alterations to certain privacy laws, is no less vital an interest as the most fundamental human “right.”

Conclusion

The unfortunate reality of the post-9/11 world is that there can be no assured commitment to human rights as popularly conceived. Threats to the nation threaten what is mistakenly seen as inviolable, and this fact must be accepted by the same people so determined to protect their own rights. At the same time, the judicial and legislative forces of the government are equally obligated to carefully weigh each policy proposed in these regards, as evidence of a commitment reflecting that of its people. The only solution to the moral ambiguity dilemma here lies in the not wholly satisfactory one of compromise. For the society to function in a way addressing all concerns, that society must accept that the rights it cherishes demand reasonable levels of compromise, even as such compromises must be conducted only through careful assessment of what may be reasonably adjusted to safeguard the nation.

 References

Bowie, N. E., & Simon, R. L. (2008). The Individual and the Political Order: An Introduction to Social and Political Philosophy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Etzioni, A., & Marsh, J. H. (2003). Rights Vs. Public Safety After 9/11: America in the Age of Terrorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Moore, A. D. (2005). Information Ethics: Privacy, Property, and Power. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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