National Security v. Personal Liberty

Julian E. Wright

On New Year’s Eve, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law. Under the law, which approves all defense spending for the 2012 fiscal year, certain provisions allow for the military detainment and torture of US citizens, indefinitely, essentially allowing for Guantanamo Bay-style prisons to be a real possibility for every American. While Obama signed the bill with reservation, the law does more to abridge civil liberties than to promote national security. This raises the question of whether civil liberties are more important than national security. The answer is simple. Yes.

Arising from the distinct rights endowed by the United States Constitution in 1789, the opposition to the suspension of personal liberties in the interest of national security has maintained its strident course throughout history. The position that the government can not and should not suspend the personal liberties delineated in the U.S. Constitution has stood steadfast from the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the PATRIOT Act of 2001, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011. While national security undoubtedly plays a vital role in securing the tranquility and prosperity of the United States, it is for the purposes of upholding the sacred and fundamental principles bequeathed by our founding fathers, and, in the hope of promising future generations the same prospect of liberty, that the United States government ought not suspend personal liberties in the interest of national security.To first understand liberty, one must understand the rights endowed to those who are within the jurisdiction of the United States federal government, as granted in the 14th amendment. The most common rights to be infringed upon in the aimless quest for national security include amendments one, which guarantees the freedom of speech, the press, religion, to petition, and to assemble; four, which protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”; eight, which guarantees the right that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”; and nine, which notes that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”. Throughout history, laws and rulings like the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the suspension of Habeas Corpus by President Abraham Lincoln, Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire, PATRIOT Act of 2001, and, most recently, President Obama’s National Defense Authorization Act, all do a small part to infringe upon the rights of a the people delineated in the Constitution. And, if one right can be taken a way, eventually, they all can.

The social contract and a utilitarian structure of government theories of John Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau could possibly provide justified practices of suspending personal liberties in the interest of national security, but only if the United States wasn’t rule under the supreme law of the Constitution, a document which explicitly expresses the personal liberties of all persons within its jurisdiction based on the philosophy of John Locke. In Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, he outlines the earliest ideas of the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” by stating, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”. With the original intent of the Constitution being based around Locke’s theory that the prominent source of authority in a political society abides with the people and the sole purpose of a government is to defend the life and liberty, the practices of the United States Government should be founded in this, regardless of the theories of Hobbes and Rousseau.

But, while the purpose of suspending personal liberties in the interest of national security may be to halt terroristic activity, the practice of doing so would provide a greater harm than the harm of perpetual terroristic activity. Though they are not mutually exclusive, the practice of suspending personal liberties for national security has proven to be detrimental to the pursuit of domestic tranquility in the quest to secure the United States’ political, economic, militaristic, and social interest.  This detriment on national security has been caused by various practices of suspending personal liberties for the false interest of national security.

The history of the United States of America has cultivated a necessary discourse over the appropriateness of the suspension and/or abbreviation of personal liberties in the interest of national security. During the tumultuous times of war and during the tranquil times of peace, the dissensus has continued on. The vacillating interest of the United States and its citizens has been the cause of various practices in favor of both the strengthening of national security and the protection of personal liberties. Often times, the public outcry has proven to provide both sufficient opposition and support to the expanding powers of the United States government, and the necessitated interest of national security. But, the contradictions and consequences of suspending personal liberties are far too vast to justify the practice. With the four-year extension of The Patriot Act of 2001 by President Barack Obama on May 26, 2011, the United States has continued to move away from the practice of protecting personal liberties in the interest of national security, despite the implications of the practice of torture and racial profiling. The words of President Abraham Lincoln still hold true in this day, “American will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves”.