- - Sunday, August 18, 2013

For the past quarter-century, the debate over law enforcement has leaned heavily in support of cracking down on crime and fighting the wars on drugs and terrorism.

But with the simultaneous rise of liberals in President Obama’s Democratic coalition and Rand Paul-style libertarianism among Republicans, concern over government intrusiveness has moved to the forefront, sparking a debate that would have seemed unimaginable during the cocaine wars or in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The cracks in the once-unanimous law-and-order mentality were on full display during the whirlwind events of this month.

In stark contrast to the tough tactics of former prosecutors such as Rudolph W. Giuliani, Robert Morganthau and John Ashcroft, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. declared unilaterally that he would direct federal prosecutors away from filing charges that contain minimum mandatory sentences for drug dealers.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 Terry v. Ohio ruling, which permits stop-and-frisk police searches, a federal judge held that the New York Police Department’s systematic stop-and-frisk campaign was unconstitutional because it was overbroad. Other restrictions on the NYPD may be coming.

On Friday, Mr. Obama couldn’t start his August vacation without first holding a televised news conference promising more oversight of the National Security Agency spying machine brought to light by Edward Snowden’s leaks.

The conviction of FBI informant turned murderer Whitey Bulger raised the specter of a law enforcement culture that once placed the ends of crippling crime syndicates over the means of overlooking the criminal activities of its informants.

Such debate would have been unimaginable after 9/11 attacks or during the crime wave of the 1980s, when civil liberties advocates proudly declared that they were “card-carrying members of the ACLU” and Americans were angered by the soft-on-crime sentiment personified by the “Willie Horton” TV ad in the 1988 presidential race. Today, the debate has opened up from unanimous support for law enforcement to a more wary debate over limits on police powers.

“Tensions in this area have been characteristic of our governmental framework since the nation’s founding. Thankfully, the self-corrective features of that framework inhibit excesses in either extreme carrying the day. It should come as no surprise that we are once again in the midst of such a process,” said former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.

John Avlon, former chief speechwriter for Mr. Giuliani, agreed that “the age-old tension between freedom and security should always be reassessed to meet new circumstances,” but he warned about complacency, calling it a luxury that the policies themselves created.

“The threat of terrorism is not over, even 12 years after the attacks of 9/11, and although crime is down dramatically over the past two decades, the problem of violent crime is not over. There is an unwise temptation to take our gains for granted,” he said.

On the legal front, advocacy groups such as the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have stepped up challenges to police and intelligence tactics that they argue infringe on the First and Fourth amendments.

On that front, Mr. Avlon agreed that as the details of the surveillance state have become better known, many in Congress have turned against them.

“Since our laws have not kept pace with advances in technology, particularly with regards to personal privacy and the Fourth Amendment, I think it is healthy and hopeful to see a growing bipartisan coalition in Congress — from liberals to libertarians — question the expansion of state surveillance,” he said.

Just how big Americans’ appetite for change remains to be seen.

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