Liberty and Security Five Years Later


Five years after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Harvard Federalist Society hosted a panel of professors to discuss the balance between civil liberties and national security in the war on terrorism. Over 100 students sat, leaned, and stood in Harkness South to hear Professors Charles Fried, Laurence Tribe, and Steven Calabresi spar on issues ranging from NSA wiretapping to the Abu Ghraib detention camp.

Professor Fried opened the discussion by defending the President’s actions in light of the threat America faces from terrorist organizations. Although Professor Tribe agreed that the threat of physical violence from terrorism outweighed the threat of government surveillance, he believed that the “hatred and animosity” caused by the government’s actions abroad in the war on terrorism dramatically increased the likelihood of terrorist acts that threatened physical safety. Prof. Tribe acknowledged that the President believed himself to be restrained by the Constitution, but added that “the constitution by which he claims to be restrained is one which I don’t really recognize.”

Professor Calabresi of Northwestern University Law School offered “quibbles with how President Bush has fought the war on terror,” but for the most part found the President’s actions reasonable considering the “extreme viciousness of the enemy with which we fight.” Prof. Calabresi offered a vision of the totalitarian regime sought by Al Qaeda, Iran, and Syria — one in which the government has “total Orwellian control” of religion, movies, music, knowledge, freedom from search and seizure, and “the democracy our ancestors fought and died to win.” Comparing President Bush’s actions to those taken by FDR during WWII, Prof. Calabresi found that, for the most part, the actions were consistent with historical war-time executive prerogative.

The event concluded with a question and answer session where students pushed all three professors to clarify and nuance their positions on many of the current legal issues surrounding civil liberties, including the Hamdan decision and FISA compliance for delayed warrants.

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