Since 9/11, we've held fast to our freedoms

But might fear and division still bring us down? wonders writer RALPH F. COUEY

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Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

-- Benjamin Franklin

When a country is attacked within its borders, things change, especially when civilians are killed by foreign invaders. Some civil libertarians claim that individual freedoms in America have been curtailed since 9/11. But exactly what rights have been surrendered?

The key to Franklin's statement are the words "essential liberty," which most Americans take to mean those rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Also included would be non-statutory rights, such as freedom of movement.

Freedom of speech is still very much in force. An evening watching the cable news channels or a quick browse through the Internet and the letter-to-the-editor section of the newspaper provide ample proof. People rail against politicians and positions on both sides, without fear of reprisal. Only when the line between legitimate beefs and physical threats gets crossed do authorities take action.

Freedom of religion and belief have not been revoked. No religions have been outlawed. The uproar about the Islamic community center in New York City was mostly about location. People are still free to be Muslim.

Reactionaries who call themselves "Christian" have been blowing up clinics and murdering abortion providers for a long time; yet even the most fundamentalist Christianity remains legal and practiced. The violent actions of leftist radicals in the 1960s are historical fact. Yet today one can still be a communist.

Our country has been built on the idea that people can believe anything they want as long as activities associated with those beliefs don't infringe on the rights of the rest of us. Certainly there are extremists. But most Americans are smart enough to separate the peaceful mainstream from the crazies.

We can still own guns and be secure in our homes against unlawful search and seizure. Due process still applies, as does trial by jury and protection against cruel and unusual punishment. When government steps over those lines, it usually finds out quickly as courts step in that it is just as subordinate to the laws of the land as We the People.

Some suggest that increased airport security has diminished freedom of movement. But the only thing we've really sacrificed is convenience. And that's not a protected right. We're still free to jump in our car or board a train or a bus for whatever destination suits our fancy.

Among the most interesting aspects of our post 9/11 behavior has been our willingness to endure the security measures, preferring a bit of inconvenience and dehumanization to the possibility of death and disaster.

We are at war. There have been more than 20 failed terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 and more than 17,000 successful attacks worldwide -- some of them horrendous, such as the London subway attacks in 2005 and the Madrid train bombings in 2004, but most of them relatively minor.

The threat continues. We get that. We understand why. We also understand that we don't have to sit here and take it. The heroes of United Airlines Flight 93 showed us that.

We've lived through many wars in our history, but this one is different. During the Civil War, one could point to Washington or Richmond and say with certainty, "There lies the enemy." In World War II, we could point to Berlin and Tokyo and say, "When we get there, it ends."

Now, there is no capitol, no headquarters to which we can point. We are fighting not so much a physical enemy, but the power of an idea. It is the idea that there is only one true religion, and that no other religion has a right to exist and therefore must be eradicated. In the face of such absolutism and the amorphous nature of the enemy, there is no definable finish line.

Yet we must also protect our freedoms, not only from the enemy, but also from ourselves. War breeds fear -- the kind of fear that can take us down an ever-darkening path.

The world changed on 9/11. Humanity's story opened a dark new chapter. The terrorists who acted out of hate and suspicion have inspired the same among us. Political divisions polarize us, building walls between friends and neighbors, even within families. In the past, we've always been able to rise above such things. This time? I'm not sure.

Ralph F. Couey is a writer who lives in Somerset ( ). He blogs at various sites, including and


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