July 23, 2024

Safety vs. liberty




Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Safety vs. liberty

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – The Christmas market attack in Berlin is forcing German Chancellor Angela Merkel to confront the age-old choice between public safety and individual rights.  Because of Germany’s particular history with secret police spying on its citizens, there are not surveillance cameras in highly trafficked areas as there are in London, or here in the United States.

It’s one of the first changes German leaders are advocating after a 24-year-old Tunisian man rammed a vehicle into the market killing and injuring numerous people who were out enjoying the holiday season.

Even so, one of the proprietors of the Christmas market questioned the need for cameras, saying they would not prevent somebody with evil intent. Maybe so, but they would make it a whole lot easier to track down the perpetrator. As of this writing, German police are still in the midst of a countrywide manhunt.

The first obligation of government is to provide for the public safety, and in the aftermath of an attack, there can be a tendency to go overboard. Some of the steps the Bush White House took after the 9/11 attacks were taken without legal authority, and were later rescinded or amended during the Obama administration.

And everyone recognizes that the internment camps set up during World War II to sequester Japanese Americans were an overreach by government, and a stain on the values that America represents.

Likewise, Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War was seen as an assault on the Constitution.

But the pendulum swings in synch with the frequency and magnitude of horrific events. Chancellor Merkel’s challenge is to find steps she can take to reassure the German public she understands this, that she understands the threat Islamic extremists pose not only to her country, but throughout Europe and the world.

She recently called for a ban on full-face religious head coverings in Germany, which was reported as a concession to the right-wing parties gaining new converts in Germany and throughout Europe. Such parties would rely upon increasingly authoritarian governments to combat terrorism – either that or they would use terrorism as an excuse to assert their dominance, thereby posing a threat as great or worse than the foes they would fight.

Even so, the far right will continue to push the center and left parties, and Merkel and her colleagues in Europe must respond. Already, they are seeking to contain the impact of increased immigration and refugee flows stemming from the civil war in Syria. Authorities have given up the dream of open travel between the countries of Europe and are returning to the border checks they thought were a thing of the past.

Europe doesn’t have a Fourth Amendment like we do to guard against search and seizure, but they have laws to protect their citizens. Those laws don’t apply to people applying for citizenship, who lawfully can be subjected to more scrutiny. They don’t apply to the Tunisian man thought to be responsible for the Christmas market attack. He had been rejected for asylum in Germany, yet his country of origin refused to take him back, leaving him in the kind of limbo where it is legitimate for intelligence services to monitor him.

President Obama in summing up his eight years in office takes pride in the fact that no foreign terrorist organization has executed an attack on the homeland from outside the United States, “and that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried,” he says.

We don’t know how many attacks were interrupted, and we don’t know to what degree constitutional niceties may have been abridged.

President-elect Trump called the Christmas market an attack on all humanity, and says this has to stop – but how?

During the campaign, he welcomed the involvement of Russia in Syria, and he also attacked Obama for not taking the rise of ISIS seriously, and not doing enough to combat the terror group.

Soon Trump will have to find his own balance between security and liberty, and given his blustery rhetoric, the expectation is that he will move the pendulum more toward security. But like Obama, he too will find himself a hostage to events.


          A discussion of Douglas Cohn’s new books, “World War 4,” endorsed by seven flag officers, and “The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency”, may be found at:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?414121-1/presidents-first-year-world-war-4 or by typing “C-SPAN” and “Cohn”

Twitter:  @douglas_cohn

© 2016 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.


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