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The ACLU’s Civil Liberties Fundamentalism By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 10, 2002

THE NEW YORK TIMES' recent puff-piece on ACLU chief Anthony Romero (link requires registration) as usual neglected to ask the critical question. Quite simply, how many American lives is the ACLU willing to sacrifice to uphold its civil liberties fundamentalism?


The ACLU's position is a variation of the "slippery slope" argument. Compromising the civil liberties of possible enemies during war or crisis necessitates increased governmental power, which in turn whets government's appetite for more control. A process of incremental tyranny is thus begun, which eventually will lead to oppressive intrusions into citizens' lives that serve parochial political rather than national security goals. Thus the self-appointed caretakers of civil liberties such as the ACLU must attack any and every restriction since it is necessarilly the first step down that sloping slippery path.

This scenario is misleading not because government doesn't need to be carefully monitored, or isn't hungry for power, but because there's little historical evidence that such a process of incremental oppression necessarily follows ad hoc restrictions. Past measures undertaken in response to immediate crises, such as Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus or the internment of the Japanese in WWII, have not lead inexorably to ever-greater restrictions.

On the contrary, the trend historically has been in the opposite direction, to an ever-greater widening of civil liberties to include activities that would have horrified the Founders. Thus today, librarians cannot put filters on their computers to keep children from accessing pornography, as this presumably would violate somebody's First Amendment rights, and the ACLU frets over the rights of illegal immigrants, i.e. lawbreakers, even if they fit a terrorist profile.

The brake on government, of course, is the citizenry, who through the political process and public opinion guard the frontiers of freedom. Yet typical of most self-styled "progressives" watch-dogs, the ACLU distrusts the people, seeing them as unstable, benighted yahoos easily manipulated into giving up their and others' freedoms because of irrational fear and grubby self-interest--unless, of course, they are schooled by their smarter liberal betters. I find this elitism ironic, given American liberals' sorry record of pandering to left-wing thugs and tyrants. That's why today you can find academics who call themselves Maoist, and nary a one who is a Hitlerist, even though when it came to mass murder, Mao made Hitler look like an amateur.

If the danger the ACLU claims to protect us from is remote, the threat they're winking at surely isn't. It is highly likely that more Al Qaeda "sleeper" agents are in this country, and that they are here to kill Americans. To meet this potential threat, we are faced with the following unpleasant choice: to risk inconveniencing and humiliating the innocent and compromising temporarily their civil liberties, or to risk more dead Americans. We don't know how many lives have been saved so far because potential terrorists are in custody.

If the first choice is absolutely prohibited on principle, which apparently is the ACLU's position, then those endorsing such a prohibition are obliged to tell us what other means exist for protecting American lives, precisely how and why those means are as effective as the ones being used, and most important, to acknowledge that their principles carry a price: the possibility of more dead and mangled Americans.

Civil liberties fundamentalist like Anthony Romero, then, should be compelled to recognize publicly that their principles very likely could cost human lives, and that they accept this risk. But don't hold your breath. The hallmark of leftism this century has been the eagerness to embrace ideals and principles that somebody else ends up paying for.

Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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