Elimination of Fear Always Will Take Priority over Civil Liberties

Richard Drake
European History

[Reprinted with permission of the author from The Great Falls Tribune, Sunday, 30 September 2001.]

The eminent nineteenth-century historian, Lord Acton, held it as a law of history that "when men in the mass have a choice between order and anarchy, they choose order and will turn to the man or the party that will give it to them."

The French Revolution of 1789 stands out as the classic illustration of Lord Acton's law. As a result of the violence, chaos, and confusion of the Reign of Terror and its aftermath, the people of France cried out for order. Napoleon gave it to them, with the ironic result that at the end of a revolution ostensibly dedicated to liberty, equality and fraternity, the French had the most authoritarian government in their history.

Despite the humanitarian rhetoric of the revolutionaries, the radical augmentation of state power emerged as the most important result of the anarchy-ridden French Revolution.

Contemporary Italian history provides more recent illustrations of Lord Acton's law. Indeed, the exceptionally traumatic experience of the Italians with terrorism contains some important historical lessons for the United States as we face up to the challenges posed by the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC.

From 1969 until the mid-1980s, Italy suffered more from terrorism than any other Western industrialized nation. Terror in Italy mainly took the form of bombings by the radical right and shootings by the extreme left. In excess of twelve hundred people died or sustained grievous injury from this wave of violence, which included thousands of attacks by dozens of terrorist groups.

The gravity of the situation created by Italian terrorists can best be understood in the light of the special measures that the government adopted to meet the crisis.

For the first time in the history of the Italian republic, military men took over traditionally civilian offices; people suspected of terrorism could be detained by order of a magistrate and interrogated without the presence of a lawyer; the imposition of life sentences became much more common; and the government suspended or drastically cut back laws preventing unreasonable search and seizure.

The most breathtaking of these special measures was the law of repentant terrorists. Designed to elicit testimony against unrepentant terrorists still in the field, it raised a host of constitutional issues about hearsay evidence and special sentencing provisions for those, even murderers, who turned state's evidence. As a practical measure, though, the law resulted in the arrest of dozens of terrorists and contributed decisively to the defeat of terrorism.

Far from protesting against these measures, the Italian people welcomed them. They had become terrified as a result of the more than 10-year period of unremitting violence by the extremist groups. Given a choice between order and anarchy, they did what Lord Acton said any people would do in such circumstances: they chose order and turned to the men who would give it to them.

As America turns to face the challenge of unprecedented terrorism on its shores, the question arises about our capacity to evade Lord Acton's law. At the moment, we appear to be conforming to its dictates.

Bill of Rights issues are already at stake. According to recent reports, the FBI has raided InfoCom, the Web host for Muslim groups. The FBI has also demanded that Internet service providers install the government's "Carnivore" e-mail tracking software. Increased intrusiveness by U.S. law enforcement officials and intelligence services into the lives of Americans is well under way.

The future of civil liberties is a growing concern, particularly for Arab-Americans.

Given the probable authorship of the Sept. 11 attacks by radical Muslim groups, increasingly blatant forms of ethnic profiling will be perceived as unavoidable by most Americans.

One conclusion to be drawn from these depressing observations is that freedom ultimately does not come from theory. Freedom does not issue primarily from words written in a Constitution, sacred though such a document might be.

Freedom issues from the social conditions that are conducive to it, the single most important of which is stability.

With the cancellation of stability, freedom begins to lead a fugitive existence. For a terrified people, history shows that the elimination of violence and fear takes priority over everything else, including civil liberties.

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