Liberty Increases Security, Kopel Argues
by Ari Armstrong
[The following article originally appeared in the April 2002 edition of Colorado Liberty.]
By standing up for liberty, "you are helping to fight terrorism," David Kopel said at a February 25 event sponsored by the CU Campus Libertarians.
Kopel, who serves as research director for the Independence Institute, emphasized the importance of directing law enforcement resources appropriately. We should resist the "tendency to promote the feel-good solution" that doesn't actually address the problem of terrorism but instead only wastes resources and weakens our rights.
Americans have seen a "tremendous power grab" under the pretense of fighting terrorism, but many measures are a "bait and switch" that don't address the problem of terrorism at all.
For example, the USA PATRIOT Act didn't enable law enforcement to implement roving wire taps -- those were already permitted. What it did was change the decision-making process from the judicial branch to the executive branch. The Act also allows federal agents to snoop into e-mail correspondence and web activity, all without judicial review. Information such as e-mail addresses and internet search terms is now easily monitored, even when it doesn't have any relationship to tracking terrorists.
Law enforcement has always been able to conduct secret searches, after gaining permission from the judicial branch. Now, again, judicial review has been weakened, leading to a "concentration of power in the executive branch."
Mass video surveillance is unreliable in terms of recognizing faces. Certainly it has not been used to catch terrorists. At best, it has been used to stop a few petty crimes. Unfortunately, the technology is easily abused, as when male surveyors observe attractive women. Kopel urged Americans to resist the "1984 vision of constant surveillance." Under the Taliban, Kopel reminded the audience, women were under such constant surveillance. "Don't make our society more like theirs."
A national identity card would similarly expand government powers and divert resources away from fighting crime to harassing the innocent. Current government databases are "riddled with errors," Kopel noted. At least when one information system fails -- such as when a woman on Medicare was falsely listed as deceased -- the error doesn't cascade through the entire system.
Under a unified national database, a single error could ruin a person's entire life. A national database would also fall prey to corruption as some agents sold false identities or other favors. With the "flood of information coming into the government" under a national ID system, it would actually be "harder to pinpoint terrorists."
Unfortunately, disarmament groups such as the Violence Policy Center have used the terrorist attack as a pretext to advocate the same anti-gun laws as before. For instance, that group has used the label "terrorist weapons" to describe .50 caliber rifles, even though there is no such link. The group has also claimed American guns have ended up in the hands of Taliban fighters -- but the group neglected to mention that the U.S. government provided those guns. Again, inane laws threaten to waste resources by targeting peaceful American citizens instead of dangerous criminals.
"Our country is at war," Kopel said, and it is "essential that we win this war." But we can do that only by protecting civil liberties. "Our strength as a society is our openness, our non-hierarchical structure, and the willingness of individual citizens to help."
Kopel praised America's "spirit of liberty." But the Constitution "only goes so far"; it is up to every generation to protect individual rights against intrusive and abusive government. "Don't give up. Keep a strong, independent, and optimistic spirit."