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Debate: Security vs. liberty

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Is it acceptable to sacrifice some individual liberties in the interest of security?

Background and context

The events of September 11th 2001 forced governments all over the world to take extraordinary measures to enhance the security of their citizens. Heightened security measures, such as those in the US, include unparalleled airport checkpoint procedures, face recognition devices in public places, tracking, monitoring and identification through thumb printing of certain categories of visitors, random searches of Internet content by intelligence officers, the ability to demand records on somebody from any business or organisation, the use of wiretaps and the ability to intercept and read email, and eavesdropping on conversations between a lawyer and their client. The possible use of racial profiling to target “suspicious individuals” for more thorough searches and questioning is also being seriously discussed, although apparently not in operation. Most of these measures are associated with loss of privacy; liberty has also directly been infringed through the detention without charge or trial of non-citizens, on the grounds they do not enjoy the same rights as citizens, the designation of US citizens as enemy combatants and their indefinite detention, and by trying suspects through military tribunals rather than in a normal court with judge and jury.On the one hand, extraordinary security measures are required to counteract the imminent threats of terrorism that has become much more cunning and resourceful over the last decade. On the other hand, the introduction of these measures comes at the expense of sacrificing some of our most cherished civil liberties and rights as citizens. No doubt, there is a trade-off between security and liberty, but what is the ideal balance between them?

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Argument #1

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Yes

There is a large threat to our security. The current level of international tensions is likely to increase, leading to more and more dissatisfaction with American policies, which in turn may result in more terrorist attacks. The nature of contemporary terrorism has become far more frightening with fundamentalists ready to commit suicide, and fears that terror groups are seeking access to biological, chemical and nuclear materials. Old-fashioned terrorism has transformed into high intelligence networks of hard-to-track terrorist cells. It is not possible to curb terrorism without curbing some of the rights of citizens.

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No

There is not enough evidence to show that terrorism has evolved into something more threatening since the 1960s and 70s. Governments are likely to take advantage of anti-terrorist mania and seize the moment to strengthen their regimes. Modern government bodies fighting terrorism are sophisticated enough to counteract terrorism with little use of 'draconian' measures. It is not acceptable to curb citizen rights because of isolated events.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Negative cases of security abuse are few. In any wide-scale attempt to fight terrorism there are bound to be a few cases of abuse of security measures. Therefore it is not a good idea to shut down all security measures under a pretext that they violate rights. The majority of the measures are intended to safeguard those civil liberties instead of abusing them.

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No

Many evil events in history started with good intentions and few cases of injustice. Allowing even a few abuses as an acceptable side effect of improved security will change the tolerance level of the public and lead to a belief that rights such as the presumption of innocence and habeas corpus (which prevents the state from imprisoning someone without charging them with a crime and then trying them) are a negotiable luxury. Furthermore, abuses of the system are likely to victimise certain minority groups (e.g. Muslims, Arab-Americans) in the same way that Japanese-Americans were persecuted in World War II, something about which Americans are now rightly ashamed.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The USA is at present far better than most countries in its regard for civil liberties. New security measures do not greatly compromise this liberty, and the US measures are at the very least comparable with similar measures already in effect in other democratic developed countries, e.g. Spain and the UK, which have had to cope with domestic terrorism for far longer than the USA.

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No

If the US, the example-setting country of cherished civil liberties, allows the loss of its liberties to terrorism, it will show that terrorists have succeeded in forcing us to change our way of life. Lots of apparently minor measures can quickly add up to a significant loss of liberty. Other countries will take their cue from the US and use security as an excuse for a crackdown on political opposition movements and minority groups (examples of this can be found in Russia, China, Hong Kong, India, Liberia and the Central Asian republics). Rights mean nothing if they are ignored and eroded as soon as hard cases come along.

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Argument #4

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Yes

It is possible to keep a balance between international travel facilitation and security maintenance by introducing electronic means of customs control. Reinforced cockpit doors, sky marshals, bomb-detection machines, and information technology such as positive bag matching systems are steps in the right direction, as history proves. In September 1970 the hijack of El Al flight 217, a Boeing 707 flying from Amsterdam to New York, failed: the aircraft had a re-enforced cockpit door, and armed sky marshals on board were able to thwart the terrorists. More recently in September 2002 an attempted hijack of a Saudi airliner flying from Sudan was similarly prevented by armed security officers on board.

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No

The great increase in international travel requires faster and more efficient work from customs services all over the world. Heightened security measures make control procedures slower and cause lots of frustration among travellers, particularly those who are on business trips. There have been lots of cases when customs officers were not able to finish check in processes prior to the scheduled time of the departure of an aircraft. As a result, flights are delayed or the clients are left behind. It is, of course, of a great inconvenience for travellers, but also hugely costly for the air companies who are obliged to change the ticket. Recently many new security devices has been introduced in an attempt to fight terrorism. Terrorists and smugglers, however, are becoming more and more inventive and knowledgeable about how to carry through the prohibited articles aboard without being detected by those machines. Security persons themselves recognise inefficiency of the devices they have introduced as a method of fighting terrorism. Others fear that terrorists will no longer have to smuggle weapons or explosives on to a flight to succeed in hijacking an airliner, but can do so by overcoming an armed “sky marshal” and using their weapon.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Random searches that have caused so much frustration among travellers are not random in fact. People labelled with 'S' (suspicious passenger) on their ticket are those who are subjected to a thorough search. The software that runs on the airline's reservation system, called Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System (CAPPS), selects passengers whose carry-on and checked bags will require additional security screening. CAPPS also selects passengers at random, which helps to ensure passengers' civil liberties by guaranteeing that no individual or group of individuals is automatically targeted from the selection process.

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No

Fruitless random searches of elderly women, toddlers, and uniformed airline pilots have become mainstream in U.S. airports as more and more innocent passengers are treated like suspects rather than customers. Some of the red flags for CAPPS system are person’s last name; methods of payment (tickets paid in cash are highly suspect); whether a rental car is waiting. Those criteria that one can find online are very vague, do not allow the targeting of real suspects but harass many.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Governments have a duty to their citizens to protect their rights to security of person and freedom from fear. Laws designed to enhance security are not only passed by democratically elected governments, but also enjoy popular support as measured by opinion polls and in the outcomes of subsequent elections. Once the threat of terror has been dealt with, liberty can be given greater emphasis and security measures relaxed once again.

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No

Governments are likely to use terror as a convenient excuse for tightening laws and restricting freedoms in order to crack down in areas such as immigration, drug smuggling, fraud, etc, with insufficient public debate. Such an erosion of liberties has a long-term impact and, in practice, is unlikely ever to be reversed as it is not the nature of state bureaucracies ever to give up power. Democratic mandates are insufficient reason to erode liberties; a key purpose of civil liberties is to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority.

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