Ten Years Time: 9/11, the Heart of America and the Shadow of the Middle East

Originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America continues to grapple with the challenges of achieving a reasonable balance between domestic security and civil liberties. While the anniversary itself is today, on Tuesday a community dinner will offer a chance to more closely examine those inherent tensions. The event, presented by the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights and The Village Square, will also explore the dynamics surrounding Islam within the American context and more generally discuss the legacy of 9/11. The program, “Ten Years Time: 9/11, The Heart of America, The Shadow of the Middle East,” will open with a keynote address by prominent Tallahassee lawyer Barry Richard, who will speak on “security, pseudo-patriotism and the erosion of American liberties.”

A panel discussion to follow will focus on domestic security imperatives and feature Robert LeFiles, director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Fusion Center, along with Tom Battles, southeast regional director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service; Rob Davis, first assistant U.S. attorney, Northern District of Florida; and Bob Cromwell, retired special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville division.

Panelists will cover a range of issues, including the state of Florida’s domestic security strategy and the recent roll-out of the White House’s initiative, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.

The final panel discussion, “America and the Islamic World: Clash or Convergence,” will feature Fulbright Scholar Parvez Ahmed, a frequent commentator on the American Muslim experience; Mildred Duprey De Robles from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service (Miami division); Islamic studies scholar Adam Gaiser from the FSU Department of Religion; Rabbi Jack Romberg of Temple Israel, and Preston Scott of WFLA’s “Morning Show.”

This panel also will survey the implications for an overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans who abhor that their religion has been leveraged by extremists for nefarious purposes.

The challenges of achieving a balance between security and civil liberty were revealed in a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

It indicated that two-thirds of Americans are willing to sacrifice some level of their privacy and personal freedoms for security. A narrow majority responded that they would prioritize maintaining their civil liberties over security if they had to make a stark choice between the two, but such responses are a function of the time and circumstances.

When people feel vulnerable and insecure, they tend to tolerate greater intrusion upon their personal freedoms for greater security, real or perceived. When what drives their fears becomes less threatening or more attenuated, they tend to reassert many of the personal freedoms they previously were willing to subordinate.

The poll also reflected sharp divisions among Americans regarding whether torture can be justified in an effort to advance security interests. Fifty-two percent expressed that they would support the use of torture in certain instances to obtain critical information to disrupt terrorist activity, which presupposes that such methods are reliable for purposes of extracting actionable information. Legal and moral issues aside, research indicates otherwise.

Forty-six percent said torture never or only rarely can be justified, which raises the question of when and under what circumstances. Interestingly, there is research that suggests democratic societies may be less likely to constrain the use of state-sponsored torture than other forms of governance.

In any event, America lacks a durable public consensus against the use of state-sponsored torture.

Historically, pressures to abandon the rule of law have been immense in a number of areas such as detention and prosecution of terrorism suspects, the use of enhanced interrogation practices, degrading treatment and torture, surveillance and intelligence gathering as well as immigration law and policy — particularly during but not limited to the post-9/11 period. While tensions between legitimate domestic security imperatives and civil liberties interests can be compelling, they are not irreconcilable.

If you are interested but unable to join in person on Tuesday evening, you can join virtually via periodic rebroadcasts on WFSU TV (Comcast channel 4), a two-hour feature presentation that will air on Florida Public Radio later in the week, or a live webcast at www.wfsu.org/television/web1.php.