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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

Living in fear is a choice

Americans have tolerated a national security state for more than 55 years, ever since President Truman signed the 1952 directive that focused intelligence agencies and military resources on fighting the Cold War against international communism. The tradeoffs between the civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the government’s need to protect the nation have been continuous ever since. Every advance in communications technology has added new challenges to the dilemma of how to protect privacy while allowing the government to be vigilant in assuring our safety. In our post-9/11 world and with the nation at war, that surveillance capability is extensive, yet most Americans say they are willing to sacrifice some measure of privacy to insure that another attack does not occur.

As we learn more about how the current administration has defined its national security role, there is real cause to be concerned that a wartime president has step by step pushed back former limits and evaded judicial oversight with warrantless wiretapping and the use of data profiling to track intimate details of our lives. If you are a political or social activist, a government critic, a journalist, a university professor, if you have traveled to or have friends in foreign countries, if you read books and watch videos on specific subjects, if your phone calls or e-mails, personal banking, charitable contributions, purchase patterns, memberships and associations -- if there is anything about you that, under new government standards, might trigger a search engine to flag you as a potential threat -- you ought to think hard about the cost of current policies to our freedoms as American citizens.

Even if it were likely that none of us would come under such personal scrutiny, at issue is whether the current crisis is reshaping the relationship between the American people and its elected government and whether paranoia is to be a permanent part of our post-9/11 lives. Upcoming national elections will give us a chance to revisit the ground rules on surveillance, not only for ourselves, but for the next generation.

One choice is to let security concerns terrorize us into surrendering all our privacy rights and civil liberties. Only the young with little sense of recent history, or older people with dangerously short memories, will fail to recognize the potentially disastrous results of living in collective fear. We need only be reminded of the thousands of Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II, or of the lives destroyed by McCarthyism during the decades following the war, to recall how easily, in the grip of paranoia, we have jeopardized our national soul. Fear leads us to exaggerate dangers and target the innocent. It paralyzes social dialogue, shuts down creative problem-solving, blocks our ability to see beyond the immediate threat.

To be controlled by fear is to put up barricades made of words, walls or threats of war. It is to divide the world into us and them, friends and foes. Fear induces a way of seeing others that relies more on mistrust, suspicion and negative images than any sense of global community or hope for reconciliation.

As a society, we have a choice -- to live in fear and keep the world at bay, or to use our energies and resources to go beyond ourselves, to engage others in resolving differences and insuring mutual interests.

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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