Between Prevention and Preservation: The Debate Over Security Measures
A Post-9/11 World
The many tourists arriving at Dulles Airport in Washington have to face the long line of those waiting for their picture to be taken and their fingerprint registered, a post-9/11 experience which most find unpleasant, and some legally questionable. Yet this hurdle to get into the United States is part of a much larger effort set in motion by the Patriot Act, passed in the worried weeks following the attacks in New York and Washington. There is no question today that the Act led to misuse, and it has been continuously the subject of debate as to how its original purposes can be brought into balance with the laws and rights of those it is supposed to protect. That is the central question surrounding the discussions and legislation pertinent to internal security, and both Germany and the United States share the same struggle in coming up with an acceptable and effective balance.
During the past few days in Berlin there has been a furious exchange within the governing coalition about not only the need to store fingerprints but also over a statement made by the Interior Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who suggested that the need to thwart terrorist attacks might require preventive action. The immediate attack on Schäuble was that he was essentially jettisoning the "innocent 'til proven guilty" basis of German law. Schäuble argues that he is simply trying to fill gaps in the laws which allow potential terrorists to take advantage of within a free society, an argument his predecessor, Otto Schily, also made. The critics say he is subverting the rights of citizens to maintain both their privacy as well as their freedom.
Germany and the United States are founded on strong legal systems that seek a balance between freedom, liberty, and the rule of law. But coming to grips with how one secures all three from terrorist attacks is an increasing challenge for all states based on those principles.
This is nothing new for democracies. Great Britain faced years of terrorism from the IRA and managed to preserve the balance of law and freedom, although many criticize the legacy of those years and the extent to which domestic intelligence under MI5 was expanded since then. Yet despite those measures, the London Underground bombings were not prevented. Germany, Spain, and Australia have all encountered such challenges and have sought to find ways to respond, walking the lines between citizens' privacy and liberty and preventive measures to protect those citizens from all kinds of threats.
Finding a Balance
The challenge lies not only in developing and judging measures that are designed to prevent and protect yet still remain within the law of the land, but also to provide adequate explanations and causes for them to the public at large. Since 9/11, the White House argues, we have not had any further attacks on the U.S. Yet, along the way, there has been an increasing amount of criticism concerning steps taken by the government that were clearly examples of overreach by the authorities at the federal and state levels. Confronting the need to make course corrections is the responsibility of both the elected and the electing citizenry. We don't want to sacrifice the liberties and values we are trying to protect, whether it be within the country or outside of it.
The debates we have about these matters are absolutely central to the health of our societies as they go to the core of what we believe we are. Yet the debates are squarely embedded in our experiences and narratives. In the aftermath of the murders at Virginia Tech, Americans are now reengaged in a virulent debate over the need for gun control, something which in Germany and throughout Europe is a self evident priority. However, that debate is going to fail, once again, to make a dent in the proliferation of weapons of destruction like those used in Virginia Tech because of the nature of the debate in the U.S. where gun control morphs into a debate over the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Despite the fact that we have amendments to make course corrections in our society and the laws which rule it, this form of amending is caught in a very American argument with a seemingly unending clash of cultures.
One might go on about the debates over Guantanamo, renditions, and other arguments over the methods and goals we see in dealing with the threats at home or abroad, without a consensus emerging from the fray.
The German debate over internal security is no less a product of its experiences and narrative. Just at the time when debates over security measures in 2007 are being hotly contested, a parallel debate is going on concerning a case of terrorism in Germany thirty years ago and whether intelligence about it was suppressed by authorities at the time. What lessons will be drawn from that experience for today's threats and the tools available to confront them? What are the parameters of internal security today as opposed to when the RAF was running around Germany in the 1970s murdering people? How have they changed and are those changes sufficient to require rethinking the laws and authorities that are supposed to guard against them? The combustion heat of the debate this week reflects the fact that the Germans, no less than the Americans, really have no clear cut answers about these issues.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In many ways we are in uncharted territory. In the United States, the response to 9/11 was to create a whole new Department of Homeland Security and a system of color codes to indicate the level of insecurity we were facing at any given point. Did that make us more secure, or feel more secure? It depends on whether we can clearly measure success beyond the absence of an attack. The U.S. tradition had been to treat domestic and national security as two different zones, an artificial division in a time when national borders are becoming increasingly porous. But even within the U.S. we have seen how our security policies ran parallel to each other without lateral connections, thus missing any number of opportunities to catch nineteen suspects who later killed almost three thousand Americans.
In Europe, efforts to coordinate tracking of terrorist threats have continued to improve, but the question remains of whether the nether land of intelligence agencies working their networks has any bearing on the public debates over what is deemed permissible. Government assurances that everything is under control run up against public distrust, either with regard to what they are doing or what they are not doing behind closed doors.
Whether it is domestic politics at work or deeply-held concerns about injustices and illegal methods, we are all having problems trying to keep our balance in dealing with a set of threats we cannot adequately define; therefore the rancor over competing prescriptions continues. One side anguishes over the threats to civil liberties and resources directed away from public works in the name of security. The other side is unwilling to admit the limits of the policies and institutions, assuring that the status quo is taking care of the problem. Without any assurance of real insurance, the average citizen becomes distrustful of both sides.
Einstein was once asked what the release of atom power changed in the world. "Everything," he responded, "except the ways we think about it." The need for us to think about and talk about the realities we face in today's risk-filled world is not less manageable than the worlds we have seen before. But the need to see that reality as it is is no less needed than before. Security does not come free, but it does involve a candid and open debate about what is needed to acknowledge real vulnerabilities.
We are thus inevitably going to be dealing with the tension between efforts to preserve what we have accomplished and efforts to prevent against losing it all, one way or the other. Only a clear and unedited exchange of ideas can cut through that.
This essay appeared in the April 26, 2007, AICGS Advisor.