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Pass Anti-Terrorism Bill Now

As part of its effort in the war on terrorism, the President has proposed the ``Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001.''

It's a sweeping piece of legislation designed to help the war effort. To say that it's controversial is an understatement.

The act is about 25 pages long, so I can't offer a detailed analysis here. I'll try to give you the flavor though: It does things like allow prosecutors to use information collected by foreign governments, even if the interception would have violated the Fourth Amendment if it had occurred in the United States. It expands the scope of subpoenas for records of electronic communications. It permits nationwide application of surveillance orders and roving wiretaps.

A roving wiretap lets the police intercept any communications made to or by an intelligence target without specifying the particular phone line or computer that the government wants to monitor. The act also allows an Internet service provider to voluntarily provide information to the government if it reasonably believes there is an emergency involving the immediate danger of death or serious injury to any person.

Overall, it would be fair to say that if the act passed, the government would have more freedom to monitor Internet activities, including e-mail, and other communications, including cellphone calls.

Privacy advocates have generally reacted negatively to these and the act's other proposals. Some of the rhetoric we're hearing is that the administration is using Sept. 11 as an excuse to push legislation it wanted before the attack. Undoubtedly that's true. Let's not be so naive as to think that policymakers, who would generally favor legislation like this, didn't see this as a time when the political climate would let them succeed with legislation that didn't stand a chance before Sept. 11.

You just have to visualize ground zero or review recent polls to realize the world has changed. A recent CNN-Time Magazine Poll said that 31 percent of Americans would favor detention camps for Arab-Americans ``as a way to prevent terrorist attacks.'' Almost 60 percent would support jailing suspected terrorists ``indefinitely with no bail'' if that would prevent terrorism.

On the issue of requiring U.S. citizens to carry federal ID cards, 57 percent say let's do it. As for e-mail privacy, 55 percent would support government interception of e-mail.

Has America gone nuts? Have we completely lost the will to retain the civil liberties that generations of Americans fought to keep? While not necessarily supporting the majority views reflected by these polls, I think that Americans haven't gone nuts. What we're seeing is a mostly rational, albeit emotional, reaction to the world as it exists today.

These aren't normal times. We've just begun the first war in generations that we will partially fight on our own soil. War requires extraordinary measures. Our Constitution and culture are resilient enough for the political pendulum to swing right back to our proud middle ground when the emergency is over.

If you study history, you learn that during the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln did things that were arguably extra-constitutional. He did them in response to a national emergency of unprecedented proportions. After the Civil War, America and our Constitution returned to normal.

During World War II in response to the international conflict, America arguably crossed the constitutional line again in many ways, but our Constitution and culture bounced right back.

The only good thing that comes from war is a renewed sense of national unity. Right now, the President feels he needs this legislation as a part of his war plan. While there are parts of the act that are troubling, Congress traditionally defers to the President more during wartime.

I would like to suggest that it's important for Congress and the President to strike a quick deal on the act. We don't want it to become the first bit of polarizing legislation after Sept. 11. The problem with the ``quick deal'' method of passing legislation is that it shortcuts the normal process, and we'll undoubtedly regret at least some of what we've done. However, Congress, the President and the American people have to trust one another.

In normal times, I would oppose a lot of what's in the act. I happen to treasure the privacy of our e-mail. I don't like the idea that it might be easier for the government to monitor phone calls. However, we need to balance ideals against reality -- especially a reality that could include future terrorist acts against the United States and our allies.

We're talking about a reality where CNN interviews experts to ask about the possibility of nuclear, biological or chemical warfare against the United States. The easy deal to strike is to give the President most of what he's asking for, but let's have this new law expire in two years. We can use that time to see what we really need to fight our new war, and we can reach a consensus in a less emotional time.

Right now, the President says that he needs the act in his arsenal. I suggest that we leave second-guessing that for another day.

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