Security vs Civil Liberty

As the United States intensifies its war against terrorism at home and abroad, the Jewish community may be poised to serve as a bridge between the Bush administration and some of its critics in the civil liberties community.

That was evident at last week’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) plenum in Washington, where delegates debated and ultimately passed a resolution expressing reservations about some of the policies instituted by the government to wage this new war.

Judging by the JCPA debate, Jews are deeply ambivalent — torn between admiration for an administration that is firm in its resolve to fight a terrorist threat its predecessors ignored, and the fear that some of its leaders are exploiting the crisis in an ideology-driven effort to roll back these protections.

That ambivalence is hardly surprising.

The enemy in this new war is shadowy, its next moves impossible to discern. Six months into the battle, it’s harder than ever to judge whether the new threat facing the nation justifies a significant recalibration of the balance between national security concerns and basic constitutional protections.

After a slow start, the Jewish community is beginning to wrestle with those issues, taking a balanced approach that could be useful to the nation in the days ahead.

The Bush administration may have good reasons for policies like detention without charges and military tribunals to try terror suspects, but they have done a woefully inadequate job of explaining them to the American people. Instead, they simply invoke national security as reason enough, and imply that critics are somehow soft on terrorism. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, in particular, sometimes gives the impression he is just settling old ideological scores, not responding rationally and responsibly to a new national threat.

But the civil liberties groups haven’t been any better at making their case. Al Qaeda has been hurt by the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, but its leaders are probably still alive, and its adherents are still active in up to 60 countries around the world.

Critics of administration anti-terror policies have failed to convince the public that they understand the new threat and the need to take serious action against it.

They offer few clues how they would remedy the deficiencies that left the nation wide open to attack on Sept. 11.

The Jewish community is poised to play a bridging role between the critics and the administration, although until now, the debate has been muted. Too many Jewish leaders, fearful of losing precious access to the administration, have been reluctant to utter anything that implies even mild criticism. Others, pleased that the administration seems ready to take on some of Israel’s enemies as part of this new war, have refused to say or do anything that might rock that boat.

The debate at the JCPA plenum may signal a new and more useful role for the Jewish community. Delegates debated a resolution, sponsored by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), that strikes a balance between praising the administration’s anti-terror efforts and pointing out specific areas of concern.

The resolution acknowledges that we live in a radically changed world, with new dangers that must be dealt with.

But, in language that never becomes strident, it makes it clear that new policies and procedures must be examined carefully, to make sure the need for them outweighs the costs regarding civil liberties.

To its credit, UAHC forced the Jewish community, through the JCPA umbrella, to start dealing with some of these difficult questions.

Despite the active, informed debate at JCPA, the Jewish community — with its long commitment to civil liberties, but also with an acute awareness of the challenge of fighting terrorism in this brave new world — is still groping in the dark. So is the rest of the nation. But that groping is much better than blind acceptance of the newest claim that national security requires sweeping, hard-to-reverse changes in traditional protections of American civil liberties.