- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

It's been just over a week since the beginning of what President Bush was quick to describe as "the first war of the 21st century" and time to begin asking a few questions.

The first, of course, is just which institutions failed us on the morning of Sept. 11 or in the days before? Blame is being spread widely by many.

It is said that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies blew this one as they've blown others in the past either because they're badly organized, incompetently led and hamstrung by restrictions imposed upon them by previous administrations and by Congress.

Others blame not our intelligence gathering, but the failure of law enforcement agencies such as the FBI to heed timely warnings that they should have seen, in hindsight, pointed toward just the sort of attacks that greeted us on the 11th.

And still others are pointing fingers at the airlines, the airports and even aircraft builders and designers because of their inadequacies.

This is all to be expected, and I'm willing to grant that those who suggest we ought to have had better intelligence or should have acted differently based on what we had have a point. I'm even willing to agree with those who say that different security measures might have made a difference.

And like most Americans, I'm more than prepared to live with the inconveniences that will accompany the implementation of reasonable and prudent measures designed to make a hijacker or terrorist's job more difficult in the future.

But I am not willing to grant even for a minute that what happened last week justifies the scrapping of traditional American liberties and constitutional safeguards. In the aftermath of the attacks many were quick to suggest that life, as we've known it in this country will be forever changed and that we must be prepared as a people to sacrifice our privacy and a measure of our civil liberties in the quest for greater security.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, for example, has already suggested that we can reasonably expect to be asked to carry national identification cards complete with microchips that will allow law enforcement officers to stop us and scan our bios, credit histories, etc. at the drop of a hat. Others, including Attorney General John Ashcroft are suggesting that the government will need greater surveillance and wiretap authority as well as the virtually unfettered right to get a look at our e-mail. The makers of high tech snooping devices and the "face recognition" technology that would allow the government, once it has built a comprehensive data base on all of us, to pick potential miscreants out of a crowd are chortling at the possibilities.

Some of the suggestions are borne of panic and others seem reasonable enough on their face. But before Congress opts to increase our security by trading off the freedoms that make this nation unique, everyone ought to step back and take a very deep breath.

We must be careful lest a few Muslim extremists manage to do what neither Hitler nor Stalin could accomplish by convincing us that we must sacrifice our liberty, privacy and freedom of movement for a greater measure of security. If we do this, we will have lost the struggle just as it is beginning because we will have surrendered the essence of America in the probably vain hope that by so doing we can preserve the trappings of the greatest nation in human history.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned of just this in an interview days after helping other Pentagon workers rescue colleagues from the inferno there. His words are worth thinking about: "The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. It is to alter behavior. It is to force people who believe in freedom to be less free. That's not the way Americans live and it's not the way we want to live."

He is, of course, exactly right. We can either learn to cope or we can go after those who would force us to do so. The latter course makes more sense.

This is not to say we should be foolhardy. Airport security can and is being tightened as can security at our borders. Suspected terrorists should be targeted for surveillance and the rest, but that doesn't mean we ought to run roughshod over the rights of Americans whose only crime is that they become the targets of future terror attacks.

Sen. Phil Gramm put it best on the Senate floor last week when he told his colleagues that "I'm not interested in changing the way I live. I'm interested in changing the way they live."

Well put.

David A. Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union.

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