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Americans would trade rights for security

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Americans would trade rights for security -experts

NEW YORK, June 7 (Reuters) - In today's America, prisoners are held incommunicado for years, newspapers can't photograph soldiers' coffins returned from Iraq and the government can secretly track the books citizens read and the movies they watch.

But civil liberties can erode much further before Americans will say enough is enough, say experts in social history and political behavior.

Fear struck by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks helped launch the curtailment of civil liberties in the name of national security, and that fear keeps Americans willing to trade away rights for safety, they say.

"We're at war," said Ken Weinstein of the Hudson Institute, a policy think tank. "That's why it doesn't bother us."

Nor is there a clear "tipping point" to swing opinion the other way, added Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "We don't seem to be anywhere near it at this time."

Just after Sept. 11, 2001, polls showed two-thirds of Americans felt it would be necessary to give up some civil liberties to protect the nation. A year later, that number still stood at about half, Bowman said.

"Most people don't see a broader threat," she said. "People seem to be pretty comfortable with the general state of affairs regarding civil liberties."


Historically, losing civil liberties in a time of fear is nothing new in America.

"The question is how tolerant can a tolerant society be to the intolerant who may seek to destroy it?" said Weinstein. "This is a fairly standard process in American history."

Historians cite the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, when a threat of war with France led to the law making it illegal to speak critically of the United States. Editors were arrested, and newspapers closed down.

In the U.S. Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus writs, which protect against unlawful imprisonment.

During World War One, fear of rising communism led to anti-immigrant sentiment, deportations and a violent crackdown on the labor movement. The 1917 Espionage Act prohibited anti-war activity and under the 1918 Sedition Act no one could "utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the government.

Cold War fears of communist infiltration helped fuel the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee and a "Red Scare" led to discrimination and detention. Under the Smith Act, one could not advocate overthrow of the U.S. government.

But, said Isaac Kramnick, professor of government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, "all of those moments of fear pale in significance to 9/11 in reality and also in the way it's being exploited and manipulated by the Bush regime."

"Holding prisoners without charge and things of that sort are being justified in terms of the old argument of national security," he said.

But civil liberty issues such as prisoners rights do not trouble the average American, experts say. People look the other way when their own personal life is not at stake.

Polls proposing telephone taps and e-mail monitoring evoke far more resistance from Americans, Bowman said.

For Americans to speak out about their civil liberties, she said, "They would have to see some widespread, wide-scale abuses in what they think are private and personal areas. Then again, they're not particularly attentive."


But things may not be as insidious as they sound.

"Are we headed for a fascist dictatorship or a fascist regime with fascistic denials of civil liberties? I doubt it," said Kramnick. "Were the denials of civil liberties to really spread to the mainstream population and outside aspects of terrorism, then I think there would be a hue and cry which you do not hear now."

The question of how far is too far may be like pornography. Maybe you can't define it, but you know it when you see it.

"Americans react pretty quickly when they think their liberties are being curtailed to any serious degree," said Weinstein. "The policies of the Bush administration have been fairly well accepted because I don't think they've crossed that barrier where people say, 'Wait a second."'

Copyright Reuters Ltd.

06/07/2004 10:36

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