National Security vs. the Right to Privacy

opinion Essay
796 words
796 words

When the Challenger space shuttle blew up. Students gathered in the student lounge for hours, watching in disbelief. In a way, it was more existential than September 11. We watched the same ten seconds of the shuttle explosion over and over again, without there being a trace of the Shuttle anywhere in the world. That day was a technological disaster, a mechanical disaster that Americans, in our inimical fashion, could quickly fix.

What students watched on September 11, 2001 was a social and political disaster. Watching the events unfold was a lot less existential and a lot more practical because it is a disaster that will have a far greater impact on their world-and they, in turn, can affect that impact.

In the next months and years, we as a society will rethink everything from privacy to business organizations to architecture. Businesses will look at Morgan Stanley's experience-occupying much of the World Trade Center-and think again about the virtues of further decentralization of operations. Just as architecture in the 1970s seemed to respond to the turmoil of the 1960s (consider the fortress-like administration building at the University of Michigan or the FBI building in Washington), we may see architecture change in the future. A...

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...nder siege" just because there was armed military in the city. For those of who have lived in places through sustained periods of terrorism-like Paris during a bit of the 1980s or long stretches of time in Jerusalem-this seems an overstatement.

A democratic, civil society like ours-with rich procedural protections and robust civil rights-can survive a lot. There is only one thing a civil society cannot survive. In the words of the political philosopher John Rawls "If we are to remain free and equal citizens, we cannot afford a general retreat into private life." Not on September 11, not tomorrow, not ever.

In this essay, the author

  • Opines that society will rethink everything from privacy to business organizations to architecture in the next months and years.
  • Opines that most of our rethinking will concern law-how we will balance understandable demands for improved security with our right to privacy, freedom to travel, our free speech, and our policy of welcoming immigrants.
  • Predicts a rash of proposals to improve security which will have varying degrees of impact on people's anonymity.
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