For the past eight hundred years, our forbearers fought to obtain the civil liberties and human rights that our present society now often takes for granted. Free speech and the right to privacy figure prominently amongst the rights held dear by our modern society. However, a group cannot be productive and its members cannot coexist if each member refuses to limit their individual rights: mustn’t one’s liberty end where another’s liberty begins? Therefore the individual's right to privacy, though an appreciated aspect of our lives, cannot be valued above collective safety, one of the most ancient of man’s concerns. Despite the ardent individualism of America, one person’s privacy should never infringe on another person's fundamental right to his own safety. Nothing gives more credence to this often ignored fact than the global terrorist attacks of the twenty first century.
The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon serve as a prime illustration of why safety must trump privacy. That day almost 3000 people lost their lives and thousands more sustained injuries, billions of dollars of material and economic damage was inflicted, and an entire nation was paralysed by fear. The airspace of the United States was entirely shut down and the New York stock exchange was closed for six days (upon reopening the DOW Jones plunged a record setting 7.4% in one day). It is self-evident that an event as traumatic as the September 11 attacks must never be allowed to happen again, an assertion which consequently must place security among a nation’s top priorities, certainly higher than the privacy of its citizens. The fact is that without safety privacy is meaningless as a society cannot maintain itself if it does not assure the security of its members (the argument that without privacy safety is meaningless is fallacious as it casts aside any consideration of life itself having intrinsic value). A lack of privacy could never produce a situation as destructive as that engendered by the lack of safety which led to the September 11 attacks. That is because safety is a precondition to a productive life such as those led by the majority in the developed world, while privacy is merely a highly valued but not crucial freedom granted by our society. Other than shattering the United States’ sense of security, the events of September 11th also precipitated the War on Terror (Afghan War, Iraq War, etc.), a world-wide ideological struggle and military conflict which still rages to this day, as well as the as the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the passing of the controversial USA Patriot Act.
The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, or USA PATRIOT Act, was signed into law by President Bush on 26 October 2001 as a direct response to the September 11th attacks. This act dramatically reduced restrictions on the ability of law enforcement agencies to search and monitor the communications and records of any terrorism suspect. The PATRIOT Act also widened the discretion of immigration authorities in detaining and deporting immigrants suspected of terrorism. In addition the act eased limits on foreign intelligence gathering within the United States and increased the Secretary of the Treasury's authority in the regulation of financial transactions, particularly those involving foreign parties. Finally, the act also expanded the definition of terrorism to include domestic terrorism, thus expanding the number of situations that fall under the scope of these expanded law enforcement powers. In effect, the PATRIOT Act put into practice the bitter lesson of the September 11 attacks by establishing in law that from then on the collective safety of every citizen of the United States would be valued above the individual privacy of each and every citizen. However the act is not without a substantial amount of controversy about the amount of power it grants the government.
Ten years later, many have begun to wonder if the PATRIOT Act is entirely justified. The act's detractors see it as far too invasive and warn that it's provisions are easily abused and therefore that it may very well lead to abuse by governmental authorities. However, the numbers speak for themselves. The State Department lists that the world witnessed 10,999 terrorist attacks resulting in 14,971 fatalities in 2009, down from a high of 14,443 attacks resulting in 23,000 fatalities in 2006, and the lowest number in five years. If one also keeps in mind the growing number of cases of home-grown Muslim radicals, it is hard to sustain the argument that the Patriot Act should be scrapped. One must always remember that it was a complacent lack of security measures and lax anti-terrorism supervision laws that allowed the September 11th attack to become a reality, and that it would be a mistake to revert to that state of affairs. The continued implementation of key parts of the Patriot Act by the Democratic President Barack Obama should be enough to prove that when a nation as a whole is concerned, safety must be considered more important than privacy, in order for the majority of citizens to live securely.
In recent years, have we not perhaps begun to lose sight of reason in our age old zeal for continually greater freedoms? By definition, in a functioning society, each person must be willing to make sacrifices, i.e. limit their own liberty, so as to ensure harmony and stability within the group. In the case of safety versus privacy, as modern global terrorism demonstrates, it is the former that must be recognised as more important than latter, since security is, of the two, the condition that is essential to human development and self-realisation. Going forward we as a society must begin to slow and even reverse our desire for greater freedoms. One man’s right to privacy, a cherished but dispensable civil liberty, cannot be allowed to result in the forfeit of another man’s right to safety, an undeniable human right.