The Real Threat to Freedom

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Terrorists murdered the editor-in-chief and leading cartoonists who publish their work in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Rather than submitting to its attackers’ demands, the magazine will publish 1 million copies of next week’s issue, almost 20 times the usual number.

It is fortunate that the remaining staff have volunteered for this dangerous assignment, since no one could reasonably demand that Charlie Hebdo’s employees expose themselves to further attacks. However, defeating Islamic extremism will require journalists and other civilians to make sacrifices more typically expected of soldiers.

Nine days after the devastating attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush told a Joint Session of Congress that terrorists hate America because “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Critics denounced Bush’s explanation as little more than patriotic nonsense. Yet Bush accurately described an integral component of the extremists’ motivation.

It is worth recalling Bush’s remarks because French President Francois Hollande offered an improbably similar explanation for the attack on Charlie Hebdo. “The Republic equals freedom of expression,” he said, “the Republic equals culture, creation, it equals pluralism and democracy. That is what the assassins were targeting.” And that is what we must defend.

Regrettably, the flagships of the American media are not showing the same courage as little Charlie Hebdo. The New York Times now refuses to reproduce Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, claiming it does not publish intentionally offensive material. However, the Times did not hesitate to reproduce anti-Semitic cartoons on several occasions, because it considered them newsworthy.

ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and the Associated Press have also decided against reproducing the caricatures. Like the Times, their fear is transparent. They had an opportunity to demonstrate to the extremists that intimidation will not lead democratic nations to compromise their principles. They chose otherwise.

The irony of this submission to terrorist preferences is that many American journalists have aggressively but inaccurately portrayed the National Security Agency as a dire threat to freedom of expression. Among journalists, the prevailing sentiment regarding the NSA’s alleged excesses is that fear of terrorism should never become a pretext for the violation of fundamental rights. When the government tramples on civil liberties in the name of security, it does exactly what the terrorists want.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo should remind us that Islamic extremists are the ones who actually pose an imminent threat to freedom of expression. In contrast, the NSA’s metadata collection programs operate under extensive constraints designed to prevent unnecessary intrusions into anyone’s privacy. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the NSA has conducted surveillance of anyone based on their political affiliation.

Despite such limits, Gen. Keith Alexander, former head of the NSA, testified that his agency’s programs helped disrupt dozens of terror threats inside the United States. According to former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell, today’s surveillance programs “would likely have prevented 9/11” if they had been in place in 2001.

Nonetheless, both leading senators as well as a blue ribbon panel appointed by President Barack Obama have distorted the NSA’s record. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., accused the NSA of conducting “secret dragnet surveillance.” The president’s advisory panel concluded that the NSA’s effort “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.” The panel recommended that the NSA no longer collect and store telephony metadata, a recommendation that the president subsequently adopted.

This year, Congress will have to decide whether to renew, revise or discard key provisions of the Patriot Act, which governs surveillance. Events in Paris should inform their deliberations. According to Gary Schmitt, the author of an important study of domestic counterterrorism programs in both Europe and the United States, the French have undertaken some of the most aggressive efforts to empower the prosecutors and investigators who pursue terrorists on the homefront. Given that France still remains vulnerable, “it should give some pause to those members who think now is the time to water-down our own counterterrorism efforts,” Schmitt says.

If surrendering our civil liberties was the price of security, then decisions about surveillance policy would be truly difficult. Yet the real threat to freedom is not a mythical surveillance state, but the painfully real terrorists who have beheaded American journalists in Syria, slaughtered cartoonists in France and are fighting to oppress human freedom across the globe.

Wednesday’s attack in Paris should clarify what is truly at stake in the global war against Islamic extremist terrorism.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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