February 17, 2006

Legal minds tackle civil liberties, terrorism

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, many students—in true U of C spirit—chose to attend a debate on civil liberties and national security instead of dining in candlelight or eating chocolates.

Despite the date, the discussion was delivered to a full audience in Social Sciences 122. Titled “Defending Democracy: Balancing the Fight for Civil Liberties with the Fight Against Terrorism,” the talk featured author and U of C law professor Geoffrey Stone; Richard Posner, recently appointed judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit; and Andrew McCarthy, former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

McCarthy began the discussion by asserting that the criminal justice system and due process have been proven effective in investigating and prosecuting in terrorist cases. But he said he did not believe the criminal justice system alone is enough.

In support of this statement, McCarthy pointed out that while al-Qaeda alone is suspected of having members numbering from the thousands to tens of thousands, only 29 terrorists were convicted by the criminal justice system in the ’90s. According to McCarthy, in order to protect the public from the threat of terrorism, it is necessary to accept some intrusions on civil liberties.

Stone followed McCarthy’s comments by suggesting extreme caution and skepticism whenever civil liberties are at stake. He cited many instances in American history, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the Cold War black-listings, when the government limited civil liberties in times of conflict and realized later that such limitations were unnecessary.

“The mindset I suggest we take,” Stone said, “is that whenever anything is proposed that restricts civil liberties, we look at it with a high degree of doubt, with the idea that we will overreact in mind, so we can assure ourselves that it has been highly debated and discussed rather than implemented in secret.”

The last to speak was Posner, who countered Stone’s argument with the assertion that allowing the government to implement comprehensive electronic surveillance to combat terrorism is a necessary sacrifice of civil liberties. He stated firmly that there are times when the suspension of civil rights is inevitable and that the historical references made by Stone were too remote to have a bearing on the current situation.

“It’s a vital program,” said Posner, referring to comprehensive electronic surveillance, “and if the law has to be changed to accommodate it, so be it.”

The event was presented by the Chicago Friends of Israel, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Jewish Community Relations Council Initiative for Israel on Campus, and the Newberger Hillel Center, and co-sponsored by the UC Democrats and College Republicans.