- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2001

Over and over since terrorists attacked New York City and the Pentagon, I've heard people saying the United States will now turn into a police state.
Those for whom paranoia is a hobby believe that law enforcement will use the events as an excuse to restrict civil liberties, which they believe to be the chief aim in life of the police. Rational beings worry that measures undertaken with good intentions to increase security will nonetheless erode civil liberty. How much of this makes sense?
I don't claim to be an expert. But I've talked with some guys who do this for a living and, well, they pretty much say what the man in the street says. It is a new world.
Take Reagan National Airport: The briefest deviation from the flight path and an airliner is at the front door of the Capitol or White House. Missiles won't help bring it down. Little things like Stingers don't do enough damage fast enough. Bigger missiles are available, but when does the missile get a line-of-sight shot on a plane coming in 20 feet off the roofs?
Do we close National forever? Do we put disguised air marshals on every flight? Better than nothing. On international flights to Dulles they would presumably have to board in Delhi. That is, foreign airlines would have to cooperate. But if five attempts at hijacking failed and the sixth took out Congress, the bad guys would have won.
Lock the cockpit doors? Same thing. Better than nothing. The pilot would then have to keep calmly flying as the flight attendant — say, Molly, whom he has known for years — has her throat slowly cut.
I once flew to Israel with El Al during one of the wars. The security check included probing tubes of toothpaste with wire and slicing up gift cheeses. They checked every ballpoint pen. It took forever. The plane got there.
Can we, will we, do we have to do this? Do we refuse to let Arabs fly? That's tough on perfectly decent Arabs, some of whom I know. Do we handcuff all passengers to their seats? Tough if you want to go to the john.
Pressure has already begun to increase the surveillance powers of law enforcement. I wonder whether it would help much. Do we think terrorists, never having heard of the National Security Agency, will send e-mails saying: "This is Ahmet. Meet me at Wisconsin and M so we can commit terrorism?"
Maybe it's just noise, but I'm hearing that encryption on the Internet may be illegalized. Great: The FBI will now read anything we write, though it will probably have no effect on the problem it's supposed to help solve. Now, I'm not too much of a paranoid. I don't think the FBI is a quintessentially evil organization. It may be that the Bureau doesn't have 50 agents assigned to spying on me. Forty, maybe. But I remember that a lot of FBI dossiers on people that President Clinton didn't like showed up on the creature's desk.
J. Edgar Hoover definitely used his files to keep his enemies in government in line. Maybe I write things the government doesn't like. Do I need the FBI reading over my shoulder?
Of course if the next attack is to dump high-level radioactive waste with a long half-life into the water supply somewhere, or bring in a nuke, none of this means anything at all. Nasty, hot stuff is out there. Once bad guys got some of it it, getting it into the United States would not be hard. It just hasn't happened before.
Drug Enforcement Administration guys estimate we stop maybe 5 percent of the drugs coming into this country. Basically, if terrorists want to get anything whatever of reasonable size into the United States, and take it somewhere in a truck, they can. I think we face a problem worse than any we have yet encountered, one that cops can't do much about.
We could indeed turn ourselves into a perpetually terrified totalitarian state because of these threats. Not that anyone would intend that to happen. But a change like that is hard to see happening, and it probably wouldn't feel evil, exactly. But I suspect we would gain little in actual security if we swapped our birthrights for a large increase in police powers.



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