Inside Story Americas
US anti-terrorism bill: Liberty vs security
Is the principle of indefinite detention without trial now an accepted and permanent part of American life?
Last Modified: 14 Dec 2011 12:34

A new bill is expected to pass in the US Congress, which would formally allow for the indefinite detention of anyone, including American citizens, as long as the government deems them terrorists.

"The enemy can't defeat us militarily. They don't have the firepower to defeat us militarily. The only way they can defeat us is to cause us to change ourselves and that is a self-inflicted wound."

- John Hutson, a retired US naval officer

It goes to the heart of the question which has plagued US governments for a decade: how to keep Americans safe from a terrorist attack while at the same time holding up the American ideal of liberty for its citizens.

Since 9/11, the US has held "enemy combatants" at the Guantanamo Bay military detention centre, where many are still held without trial. But this proposed bill would expand the list of those who could be detained, from those with a direct connection to 9/11, to anyone suspected of substantially supporting al-Qaeda or any associated forces.

Perhaps the most controversial clause in the bill is the one that would formally allow for US citizens to be detained indefinitely. Americans, too, could potentially face military court on terrorism-related charges.

Critics say the military should protect Americans rather than roaming their streets. And while the bill says suspects can be held until the 'war on terror' is over, no one says how or when that will happen. By giving the military more power, some complain that the bill could also hamper Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local law enforcement investigations.

"The primary question is do we feel safe, has the menace of global jihad ... been destroyed? If you think that we're still not safe ... then you're going to be on the side of actually providing and maintaining those tools that are needed to protect the US from further attacks. "

- Sebastian Gorka, a military affairs analyst

But a Gallup poll reveals that more Americans now believe that civil liberties should be protected. In January, 2002, 49 per cent of respondents answered 'no' to the question: "Should the government take all necessary steps to prevent additional acts of terrorism in the US even if it means your basic civil liberties would be violated?" In August of this year, 71 per cent said the government should prevent attacks without affecting civil liberties.

So are civil liberties in the US being permanently eroded? And is the principle of indefinite detention without trial now an accepted part of American life?

Inside Story Americas discusses with guests: John Hutson, a retired US naval officer; Shahid Buttar, a civil rights lawyer; and Sebastian Gorka, a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

"It [the bill] would really render the US much less than the free society that we have long championed and I think it would really quite frankly beg the question as to whether we are even in the free world, let alone its leader."

Shahid Buttar, a civil rights lawyer

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