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The Quest for Security

Countering the growing threat of terroriam entails a larger role for government. Yet, Americans deeply distrust government and are turning to the private sector for protection. But can you trust the rent-a-cop?

August 04, 1996|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — The issue of terrorism poses a challenge, not just to this president or this Congress, but to our whole political culture.

The United States is no longer isolated from the rest of the world. We are the target of foreign terrorists who hate America and domestic terrorists who hate government. Just since Bill Clinton became president, we've experienced the World Trade Center bombing, in 1993, the Oklahoma City disaster, in 1995, and, this year, the attack on U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, a strong suspicion of sabotage in the TWA airline crash and the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.

Even before the Olympic Park bombing, almost four Americans in 10 said they were worried that someone in their family would become a victim of a terrorist attack. This feeling of vulnerability is growing. And it's colliding with another great trend in American politics--distrust of government.

The United States was founded on distrust of government. It's enshrined in the Constitution, which sets up a weak central government with limited powers. When Americans are threatened by a crisis, however, they're willing to support a tremendous expansion of government power--as they did during the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War.

Since the 1970s, however, a backlash against big government has set in. In 1958, three-quarters of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing. In 1996, three-quarters say they don't trust the federal government to do the right thing. Even Democrats have been forced to acknowledge that reality. "The era of big government is over," Clinton told the nation in January.

So here's the dilemma: Virtually every measure likely to be effective in protecting Americans against terrorism involves bigger government. More centralized power at a time when Congress is sending programs back to the states. More government spending at a time of deficit reduction. More government regulation at a time when deregulation is the buzzword. More government intrusion at a time when Americans are saying, "Leave us alone."

How do you expand government power to fight terrorism at a time when Americans are deeply distrustful of government? The answer: with great difficulty. It took Congress a full year after the Oklahoma City bombing to pass the counterterrorism bill. Critics on the left who didn't want to curb civil liberties joined forces with critics on the right who didn't want to expand federal law-enforcement authority. The result was a weak and compromised measure that doesn't seem to be doing any good.

Because distrust of government now runs so deep, it will take a tremendous sense of public urgency--a crisis--to give the government expanded powers to combat terrorism. That, of course, is exactly the way the Founding Fathers wanted it.

Just one day after the Olympic Park bombing, Clinton called on Congress to restore anti-terrorism measures that were dropped from the counterterrorism bill before it was enacted into law. One provision would have expanded FBI authority to wiretap any telephone used by a suspected terrorist. It was opposed by civil libertarians. Another would have required manufacturers of explosives to use chemical markers that make the source of an explosion easier to trace. It was opposed by the gun lobby. A third would have allowed the military to work with federal law-enforcement agencies to combat terrorism. It was opposed by conservatives hostile to federal authority.

Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who worked to weaken the bill last spring, said he thought Congress should "re-approach" the issue in the wake of the TWA disaster and the Olympic bombing. "I believe the more there is terrorism, the more pressure we're under to find systematic ways to solve it," Gingrich said. Maybe now the crisis is strong enough to produce action.

Or maybe not. The public's sense of urgency tends to diminish rather quickly. On the other hand, distrust of government has been growing for 30 years. If people don't want to give more power to government, what else can they do to cope with the threat of terrorism?

The answer: private solutions. Exactly what Americans have been doing to cope with the threat of crime--another issue where they don't trust government to protect them. More and more people live in walled and gated communities and guarded buildings. Private security forces now outnumber public police officers. People rely on private cars, where they feel more secure, not public transit.

They prefer home entertainment to public theaters and celebrations. They shop at private malls with secure and controlled environments instead of chaotic and dangerous downtowns. They use private beaches and parks rather than public spaces--spaces like, say, Centennial Olympic Park.

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