The line between protecting individual privacy and efforts to ensure public safety is thin indeed, yet with the somber remembrances of the 12th anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil in our history comes the stark realization that government in recent years has overstepped its bounds and a lesson in how a system with no checks and balances can quickly run amuck.
In the same week that a new poll shows a majority of Americans believe the government has done a poor job at protecting individual privacy rights, previously secret documents show a pattern of abuses going back years where agencies spied on Americans who had no connection to terrorism.
The documents released this week show that the National Security Agency used its technology to unlawfully spy on Americans, and then misrepresented their actions to get programs reauthorized by a secret spy court set up after 9/11.
Couple that with the recent whistle-blowing case of Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who told the world about the U.S. spying efforts, and it is not surprising that more Americans are wary of their government today.
According to The Associated Press, an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed only 53 percent of those polled said the government did a good job ensuring freedoms. While six in 10 people polled said they thought it was necessary, at times, to sacrifice rights in the fight against terrorism, the percentage distrusting the government has risen in recent years.
As much as we would like to draw a hard line between what civil rights we would sacrifice and the sphere in which government surveillance efforts must remain, the truth is that the line moves constantly.
At times there should be increased government efforts, but those periods should come with limits, and we should never do as we did after 9/11 and set up a secret court, where information rests in perpetuity outside the public's view.
Our government is built on checks and balances, and our continued existence depends upon our ability to monitor government activities at all levels.
From the beginning questions arose about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and how it was being used. But for years we ignored the warnings. Those who spoke out were condemned as somehow un-American, bent on helping terrorists gain an advantage.
Today, as the pattern of abuses comes to light, more people are questioning the power that we have given our government to watch over us; to snoop into our daily lives.
The delicate balance between privacy rights and national security interests can be maintained, but it must be done in a manner that allows for checks and balances that constantly monitor what is going on so that we do not, unknowingly, give up our freedoms in exchange for some false sense of security.