Acton Commentary

Civil Liberties and National Security


The days following the terrorist attacks on the United States have harbored an increased tension between civil liberties and security measures. It is reasonable to assume that increased security will be necessary and perhaps a helpful component to restoring order and security to our shaken nation. As these discussions begin, however, the focus must be on the very nature of a free society. Our nation’s leaders would benefit from a preliminary counsel to prudence as they deliberate over measures restricting personal freedom.

In thinking about the nature of the free society, the oft-quoted statement of Benjamin Franklin comes to mind: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." This clever turn-of-phrase deserves some reflection as we move forward to ensure security and order of our nation. The important insight in Franklin’s remark is that even in the midst of this national crisis we must be prudent in our deliberations, lest we harm—or worse yet—subtly undermine the "essential liberty" that lies at the heart of our great republic. Although the times seem to call for the "temporary safety" so forcefully derided by Franklin, careful discernment should be given to what is deemed "essential" to liberty as sweeping security measures are debated.

Franklin's potent observation is, for many Christians, measured alongside Paul's perspective in his letter to the Romans: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established" (Rom. 13:1, NIV). The actions taken in this critical moment will have a profound effect on the future of our nation.

The concern in this debate about security issues is that a proper patriotism will succumb to war-cry bellicosity. Thus, our nation’s leaders need to encourage restraint and thoughtful deliberation as they move forward in determining how best to ensure the security of our nation.

Because the purpose of any national security measure is to preserve and protect the exercise of liberty, any actions that would compromise that liberty should be cause for concern. The personal freedoms enjoyed by United States citizens serve as beacons of hope to those subjugated by oppressive regimes throughout the world. To imprudently suppress these freedoms would sow doubt as to whether the United States is still "that shining city on a hill," shining the light of liberty for the world to see. Curtailing the freedoms of the citizenry, even in the name of security, will surely cause that light to burn less brightly.

Prudent deliberation in restraining civil liberties will be central to preserving the vibrant republic we have built. The great fruit of our nation is the freedom that our citizenry enjoys. It is freedom that allows us to be a prosperous nation, harnessing the entrepreneurial genius that makes America great and unique in the world. Undertaking reactionary policies that could compromise the essential liberty upon which our republic is founded would hand a decisive victory to the forces of terror. This we cannot do.