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Americans Still Divided on Issue of Rights vs. Security

Survey: People oppose airport racial profiling, but back monitoring prisoner-lawyer talks.

September 17, 2002|EDDY RAMIREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — While Americans say they oppose airport screenings of only those passengers with Arabic names or Middle Eastern appearance, most agree that the government should secretly monitor conversations between prisoners and their lawyers, a national poll shows.

A poll released today by the National Constitution Center shows that Americans remain deeply divided between protecting civil liberties and ensuring national security, raising an issue at the heart of an intensifying public debate: how to balance constitutional provisions with the need to ferret out those who may be plotting more terrorism.

"People's knowledge of the Constitution is very piecemeal," said Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda, the nonpartisan group that conducted the poll. "They're struggling with tensions ... the need to balance individual protections and rights with the need to protect society."

According to the poll, 58% of Americans say they support the current practice of randomly screening passengers, regardless of name or background. A quarter prefer a more limited approach, picking only those on the list of suspects, while 11% say that only passengers of Middle Eastern origin should be screened.

This is a dramatic shift in public opinion from a year ago, when polls showed that most Americans favored more intensive security checks--including a special form of identification--for Muslims or Arab Americans before they boarded airplanes.

Recently, however, a new anti-terrorist tracking system at U.S. airports has drawn fire from Islamic nations, which contend that fingerprinting and photographing their citizens is discriminatory.

But despite overwhelming opposition to racial profiling among Americans, the new poll shows that a majority want the government to enact stricter measures to prevent terrorism.

For example, nearly 6 in 10 Americans say that monitoring of prisoner-lawyer conversations, which used to be protected as confidential, is a "sensible way to get information about possible terrorist plots." Just over a third believe that this violates the right to private legal advice.

Americans also share a widespread unwillingness to extend basic constitutional guarantees to those in the United States illegally.

After being reminded that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the country illegally, 58% of the respondents said that such individuals deserve no constitutional protections. Anyone caught entering the U.S. illegally should be deported immediately, 61% said.

Despite these findings, which show that most Americans accept tougher government impositions to stop potential terrorists, more than half say they are concerned that law enforcement could "snoop on people's private lives," noting that the government either is "threatening to cross the line" or has already done so.

Georgetown University law professor David D. Cole predicts that the public's ambivalence will dissipate as time passes without acts of terrorism, noting that Americans and the courts are growing increasingly skeptical of overreaching government actions.

For example, a U.S. district judge in Washington wrote early last month that "secret arrests are a concept odious to a democratic society," in a ruling that the identities of most of the "enemy combatants" held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be released under the Freedom of Information Act.

"Time has allowed us all to pay more attention to the 'liberties' side of this balance and led us to question if incursions to liberty have made us safer, and that what's done to immigrants affects all of us," Cole said.

The nationwide random telephone survey, conducted July 10 through 24, probed the attitudes of 1,520 adults; the margin of error is plus or minus 3%.

The poll's findings, detailed in a report titled "Knowing It by Heart," are seen by researchers as a reassuring sign that Americans are committed more than ever to exploring situations that raise constitutional questions.

Although 66% of Americans admitted that their knowledge of the Constitution was not specific, the poll also shows that an overwhelming majority believe it is "absolutely essential" for people to have detailed knowledge of their constitutional rights and freedoms.

"We haven't been thinking about these issues a lot," said Joseph M. Torsella, president of the National Constitution Center, which was established by Congress in 1988 to promote understanding about the U.S. Constitution and its relevance to daily life. "The dust is going to settle, and we'll be able to see where the American mind goes. For now, people are thinking about [these constitutional questions] appropriately and thoroughly."

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