The United States Constitution, enshrined in the National Archives building about midway between the White House and the Capitol, was not hit by any terrorist attack Sept. 11. Congress and the U.S. attorney general ought to work hard to make sure it's not damaged this week, either.
The hurried, still-vague and potentially troubling expansion of police powers being sought by Attorney General John Ashcroft could indeed target the nation's venerable founding document, unless the demands are thought through thoroughly, and Congress takes seriously its mandate to balance individual freedoms and the needs of national security. The rush to pass new laws "before Friday" does not bode well for measured consideration.
America cannot redefine itself in haste and in response solely to terrorism, without conceding victory to terrorists. Changing America, by eroding the rights that Americans see as defining themselves as a culture and a people, would give terrorism a power it could never gain on its own.
Undoubtedly, that is not the intent of either the attorney general or Congress. But haste carries with it the possibility of a misstep, and the current call for new legislation without public hearings should concern all Americans.
The United States has an urgent and overwhelming need to track down the terrorists and terrorist organizations that launched the attacks on Manhattan and Washington, and to bring them to justice. Fine. Do so with temporarily expanded emergency powers, as needed, but pass no long-term changes to the fabric of American democracy without long and careful study, open debate and public support.
Many of the proposed changes could be effected on a wartime footing, for now, with an expiration date. If more permanent changes are needed, new legislation could provide them after thorough discussion of the price to be paid in terms of individual freedoms.
Americans may have to agree to sacrifice some of those freedoms, to meet the threat of global terrorism. Some of our sacrifices merely will involve inconveniences - longer lines at airports, intrusive package searches, delays and questioning. But others may impinge more deeply on rights of privacy, and such measures need debate.
Tuesday, for example, a federal policy change increased the amount of time immigration authorities could detain noncitizens before deciding whether to charge them with status violations. The time limit went from 24 to 48 hours, or more in times of crisis or other extraordinary circumstances. An extra day poses little problem, but should the government be allowed to confine people indefinitely?
Ashcroft also wants expanded wiretap authority, and increased electronic surveillance. Some of the changes he reportedly seeks make sense, especially within an existing framework that already mandates judicial wiretap approval and limits the use of "secret evidence" in criminal cases.
In a new era of multiple phone numbers and mobile communications, for example, investigators have been hampered by laws that require separate wiretap authorizations for each jurisdiction a suspect might travel through. Those laws let the government tap specified phone numbers but do not permit it to monitor all the other phones or other modes of communication a targeted suspect might use. That slows investigations, even when national security demands haste.
The goal of Congress should be to speed and empower the investigation of last week's atrocities, without permanently damaging the bedrock American tenets of due process and constitutionality. As specific details of proposed changes emerge in the days ahead, Americans will be able to measure more clearly that rebalancing of privacy and security.
The line between individual liberties and collective needs often has shifted in times of peace and times of crisis. There is no doubt it will, and probably should, move again now as the nation goes to war against terrorism. But such moves must be made with great care and with an eye toward future consequences.
We have been attacked by terrorists. We should be equally wary, now, of attacking ourselves.