Public Wants to Safeguard Civil Liberties

Recent bomb scares are bringing questions of terrorism back to the fore, but the public doesn’t think we need to sacrifice our civil liberties to stay safe.

Recent attempted terrorist car bombings in London are once again bringing the debate of how to stop terrorist actions in our own country to the fore—and for good reason. We need to deploy legitimate, effective ways for trying to stop terrorist attacks in the United States, but that protection should not come at the expense of the very freedoms we are trying to protect from terrorism.

The Bush administration has shown time and time again that it believes infringements on civil liberties are a necessary part of the struggle against terrorism. Yet the public doesn’t follow the same logic. Consider the following data from a January 2007 Pew Research poll:


The chart shows that 50 percent of the public disagrees and 45 percent agrees that freedom of speech should be extended to those groups that are sympathetic to terrorists. Views are even stronger when considering whether the police should be allowed to search the houses of people who are sympathetic to terrorists without a court order. As the graph below shows, the public rejects this proposition by a 61-37 margin.


The public also doesn’t believe that it’s necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties in order to combat terrorism. Currently 54 percent of the public thinks it is not necessary—a sentiment that has shifted sharply since the period surrounding 9/11, when the public did agree that it was necessary to give up civil liberties to fight terrorism. Apparently, the experience since then has convinced the public that curbing civil liberties is not a useful response to the threat of terrorism. Now if only members of the Bush administration could be similarly convinced by experience—unfortunately, that has never been their strong suit.


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Ruy Teixeira

Former Senior Fellow