Challenge is to balance freedom with safety

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 12, 2002

America is facing a new challenge in the ongoing war on terrorism, and this one ­ like the others ­ comes with no easy answers.

The government announced on Monday that it had foiled a plot by an American citizen to detonate a "dirty bomb" somewhere on American soil.

The news sent shivers down the backs of millions of Americans, as the threat of radiological weapons in the hands of terrorists suddenly became a real issue.

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That realization, in itself, is terrifying, and we as a nation must come to grips with the ever-present danger and the threats that terrorists pose.

But it is not the only frightening revelation in this case. The suspect ­ Abdullah Al Muhajir ­ is an American citizen. A native of Brooklyn and former Chicago street gang member, Muhajir apparently converted to Islam during his time in prison and later went on to train with al-Qaeda operatives. He became "one of them" but lived and traveled as "one of us."

Now, the Bush administration has ordered Muhajir held "as an enemy combatant" in a military jail. That designation means that he could be held indefinitely ­ at least as long as the hostilities between American and its wartime foes continue. Given the nature of this war on terrorism, that is likely to be a long, long time.

And, as an "enemy combatant," Muhajir is not guaranteed the rights of due process and other safeguards the U.S. Constitution gives to all citizens. In fact, should the president decide to pursue it, Muhajir could be tried before a secret military tribunal ­ a forum in which he is guaranteed no rights or protections.

Many Americans will say that treatment is just. They will say Muhajir forfeited his rights and protections under our Constitution when he joined enemy forces and plotted against his native country.

And, he did. Foiling his plot and jailing him ­ even in a military jail ­ is an act that protects the public.

But where will we draw that line in the future? Our nation must decide how it will balance the issues of public safety and protection against terrorism with the rights and freedoms that our Constitution guarantees. The very ideals that we so passionately fight to protect and preserve ultimately could lead to more danger and threats to our country and our lives.

And the challenge to balance our freedoms against our safety and our lives is a difficult one, at best.


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