ACLU, Hudson heads square off on Butler campus

It didn't have quite the emotional intensity of, say, a Pacers/Pistons game, but the stakes were much higher last week on the campus of Butler University. Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Herbert London, president of the conservative think tank the Hudson Institute, debated with each other and audience members on the subject of balancing civil liberties and national security in the face of terror. Herbert London of the Hudson Institute makes a point while the ACLU's Nadine Strossen looks on during their debate at Butler University.

"The president has reserved the authority to declare any of us, any American citizen, as an enemy combatant and imprison us incommunicado, without access to a lawyer, let alone a court of law," Strossen said in condemning the Bush Administration's approach to terror issues, in particular the USA PATRIOT Act. "Worse yet is the accusation by Attorney General Ashcroft that those of us who even criticize the administration's position [are] unpatriotic or even traitors!" Strossen said. "This extreme position was underscored by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to soundly reject this power. In the widely quoted words of Sandra Day O'Connor, not a noted civil libertarian: 'A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens.'"

London argued that the unique nature of the war on terror demanded harsher measures.

"It had been assumed by many that with the end of the Cold War, barbarism is a condition that civilized people could leave behind," London said. "After 9/11, we have entered a period in which our enemy, radical Islam, is out to kill America. There is a belief among radical Islamists that the infidels, namely Christians and Jews, must be made to submit to Islam or die. One of the criticisms I have of the ACLU is their unwillingness to recognize that this is a unique event in our history. What do you do with an enemy who is willingly destroyed, who wants to destroy himself? What do you do with a culture of nihilism? It is obvious that in the freedom/security balance, some freedom must be reduced for security. For example, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Before liberty can be attained, survival must be secured."

The discussion occasionally became quite spirited, as when London noted that in the past three years, the FBI and CIA have foiled 192 plots to destroy American landmarks and take American lives. "Without the PATRIOT Act, these could not have been done."

"That number has been debunked by looking at what low-level crimes these persons were convicted of," Strossen replied moments later. "The Justice Department has not been able to point out one successful prosecution that they could not have accomplished BEFORE the PATRIOT Act."

"Maybe you should ask the many law enforcement officials I've personally spoken to who said they could not have made these arrests without the PATRIOT Act," London rebutted.

Strossen drove her point home to the crowd of mostly students with examples of how their privacy might be violated.

"It's not just library records," she said. "Your student records, your health records, literally any tangible thing can be acquired. We have found out that the government has admitted using that power."

London defended the use of such powers in the name of pre-empting terror.

"Let's assume that you could have looked over the shoulder of Mohammed Atta as he read an airplane training manual, and you knew something of his terrorist background, and you could know exactly what he was reading, would it be appropriate to do so, and to detain him?" London said. "The question is, must we wait for that terrible incident to occur?"


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