A Shocking 4 in 10 Americans Want to Sacrifice Their Personal Liberty to Fight Terrorism

A new poll from CNN shows that four and 10 Americans are willing to give up some civil liberties to fight terrorism. Regardless of what this poll says about American values, I take issue with the fact that this poll was even conducted. A poll on national security conducted two weeks after a terrorist attack on American soil is asking for skewed results. How do you think we passed the Patriot Act?

In the days and weeks after a major attack, people are obviously going to be more scared than they would be normally. So, it shouldn’t come as any shock that when asked how worried they were that someone in their family would “become a victim of terrorism” the percentage of people “very” and “somewhat” worried went up.

Just like this shouldn’t be shocking, it also should become justification for enacting policies that would restrict the civil liberties of Americans.

The poll indicates that 81% of Americans favor expanding the use of cameras on streets and in public places — up 20 points since 2001, and 10 points since 2006. It also says 79% indicate they are in favor of facial-recognition technology to search for suspected terrorists at pubic events, which is actually down seven points since 2001 and essentially consistent with 2006 numbers. 

But should we use a poll was conducted fifteen days after the April 15Boston Marathon Bombings as justification for such hefty government policies? I don’t think so. Just like I don’t think we should have used fear over the unprecedented 9/11 attacks to justify the absurd violations of civil liberties that are now legal within the Patriot Act.

What I think is most telling about the state of mind of Americans, is that the poll actually indicates that the majority of Americans are not willing to sacrifice civil liberties to fight terrorism. Six in 10 reported that they are more worried about the government restricting civil liberties than they are that the government will fail to enact new anti-terrorist policies. Hopefully that is what lawmakers will see when they read this poll.

What’s more, Americans are now less willing to hand over access to wireless communication than they were after Sept. 11:

"After 9/11, 54% of Americans favored expanded government monitoring of cell phones and email. Now, the message is 'hands off,'" said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "Only 38% favor expanding government monitoring of those forms of communication." 

We have had time to come to terms with what happened on 9/11. It still breaks our hearts, but now we are no longer reacting out of fear when we consider what the government should be able to do in an attempt to keep us safe. Perhaps our polling numbers in terms of facial recognition and video surveillance will experience the same drop in time.

A poll inspired by fear is not an accurate litmus test of American feelings — it is an accurate litmus test of American fear. While I’m concerned that this poll will spark unnecessary violations (even in small ways) of our civil liberties, I’m proud to say that Americans are — at least on balance — unwilling to change our way of life because someone scares us into believing we should.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Jessica Huseman

Jessica wrote for Mic.com until Feb. 2014. Now she's an investigative reporter at The Teacher Project, writing articles on K12 education for Slate.com. Her work has appeared in ProPublica, The Atlantic, Slate, The Dallas Morning News and Chalkbeat and more. Find her contact info and her recent work at www.jessicalhuseman.com.

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