April 6, 2003
Imagine a scenario in which terrorists begin attacking urban centers. The government responds with widespread detention; extended powers of arrest, search and seizure; increased surveillance capabilities; and the creation of a special court to try terrorist suspects. Before long it is sanctioning inhumane treatment of prisoners and the use of military force.
That is how the British government responded in the early 1970s to the start of Northern Ireland's Troubles. The effect was devastating. The new measures alienated the minority Catholic population and breathed life into a near-defunct Republican movement. More than 3,600 people died in the decades of violence that ensued. The provisions also carried heavy economic and political costs, both at home and abroad. Most critically, they undermined the state's political legitimacy at a time when an avowedly violent movement sought to destabilize the government.
The erosion of individual rights carries significant domestic and foreign-relations consequences. Beyond this, a more fundamental question arises: Has America remained true to its founding principles?