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Civil Liberties, Paranoia Among Costs of Anti-Terrorism War

Justice O'Connor's tennis shoes illustrate a more tangible price, $30,000 to handle a suspicious package. Then there's the $500 million Congress set aside to make it easier to tap phones.


WASHINGTON — The package that landed on Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's suburban front porch one day last month was swathed in black plastic and had no visible markings. That was all it took to activate the FBI's anti-terrorism unit and to send the Maryland fire marshal's bomb squad--along with the local police, fire and rescue squads--rushing to the scene to cordon off the street.

By the time the box had been turned over to disclose its shipping label and the fact that it contained a pair of tennis shoes, a bemused O'Connor estimated that the rapid response had cost taxpayers about $30,000.

But that is small change in the overall reckoning of the price exacted by the nation's growing obsession with security, a bill that needs to be calculated not only in dollars but in the threatened diminishment of civil liberties.

Shutting down a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in 1995 to protect the White House in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing deprived the already depleted District of Columbia treasury of nearly $1 million in lost parking-meter revenue. That number pales by comparison with the $500 million authorized by Congress to help phone companies comply with a new law requiring them to modify their equipment to accommodate wiretaps. And no one has even tried to calculate the cost of the tens of thousands of man- and woman-hours expended by air travelers waiting at ticket counters to pass the new security checks ordered up in the wake of 1996's midair explosion of TWA Flight 800.


Finally, but perhaps most important, there is the intangible price paid in the erosion of freedom and privacy as a result of such anti-terrorism measures as the planned expansion of wiretapping and the effort by the airlines, prodded by the federal government, to intensify the use of passenger "profiles" in the hunt for potential terrorists.

All this represents only the latest episode in this nation's struggle between security and freedom, a conflict as old as America itself. Most of the time, those challenging the expansion of government power have usually been the underdogs. So it should not be surprising that right now, with memories still fresh of the Oklahoma City tragedy and the 168 people killed there, civil libertarians are on the defensive.

"There seems to be the imperative to do something, and people seem to be willing to do almost anything," complained Timothy Lynch, assistant director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank.

Supporters of tougher security cast themselves as the true defenders of freedom. "The state's first duty is to protect life and limb," argues Amitai Etzioni, George Washington University sociologist. "If the state doesn't do that, it endangers the whole fabric of liberty, because people start demanding strong-arm intervention."


But civil libertarians argue that--as with the case of O'Connor's tennis shoes--some of the government's responses to the supposed danger have been triggered by false alarms. They note, for example, that although the destruction of Flight 800 was the catalyst for a new wave of airline-security regulations, the FBI recently informed the families of the victims that its investigation has turned up no evidence linking the explosion to terrorism.

Other government moves strike many as designed more to implement well-established political agendas than to deal specifically with terrorism.

Georgetown University constitutional scholar David Cole cites as particularly onerous a provision in the anti-terrorism law enacted last year in response to the Oklahoma City bombing that prohibits U.S. citizens from giving humanitarian aid to noncombatant components of foreign groups designated as terrorist by the State Department. If that rule had been in effect years before, it would have prevented Americans from supporting peaceful activities of the African National Congress during its long struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Another target for critics is the 1994 wiretap act that compels phone companies to modify their new digital equipment to expedite wiretapping, which federal officials hail as a key weapon against terrorism. But statistics on wiretaps by state and federal authorities, collected by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, show that in the last 10 years, only 10 wiretaps have been authorized for arson or bombing investigations--about one-tenth of 1% of the total of more than 9,000. Most have been used for narcotics and gambling investigations.

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