When things went wrong in ancient times, our pagan ancestors tried to appease the gods by destroying that which they held dearest, hoping that their sacrifice would purchase their safety.
In modern times, we sometimes resort to the same practice -- though what we are asked to place on the altar is not a goat, or even a child, but our freedom.
That's what happened after the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing when we enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which drastically enhanced the power of law enforcement in all sorts of ways. Though even proponents of the act admitted that nothing in the law would have done anything to prevent the Oklahoma City bombing—the supposed reason for its existence—we still wound up passing the act.
After TWA Flight 800 went down, initial beliefs that the crash was an act of terrorism (a theory eventually disproved) made Americans willing to accept new "security" regulations. Those new regulations would not have prevented that disaster, and they did not prevent Tuesday’s terrorist attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Things may not be as bad this time. After Oklahoma City, President Clinton was following the advice of political Svengali Dick Morris, who advised him to milk that event for all it was worth as a way of saving his embattled presidency. But sure as crabgrass seeks out cracks in a driveway, we will see another such effort even if there are no political operatives in the current White House who think like Morris.
I have no doubt, even as I write this, that longstanding bureaucratic wish lists are being transformed into "essential" anti-terrorist precautions. I also have no doubt that most of them won't do any more good than the dumb "are you a terrorist?" questions immigration officials have been asking embarking passengers for years.
Worse, this sort of overreaction is exactly what terrorists want. Make no mistake. They hate us not because of what we do but for what we are: rich, free, and happy. To the extent that we give away our freedom in the vain hope that its sacrifice will purchase us a little security, we are playing into their hands. And, as Benjamin Franklin famously predicted, in making that sacrifice we will in fact wind up with neither freedom nor security.
The good news is that many voices are already making this point.
Rush Limbaugh says that we didn't become a great nation by acting fearful, but by being free, and that we won't stay great by ceasing to be free. Deroy Murdock writes, that "the Bill of Rights must not collapse with the twin towers." Dave Kopel writes that "The main source of our strength is our freedom and open society. The United States already has the most powerful military in the world. We don't need the symbolic jaw, jaw, jaw of more laws, but the will to use our existing war power."
Kopel is right about this. "Increased security measures" don't stop terrorists, except for the occasional bumbling amateur. To put it bluntly, bullets stop terrorists. Terrorists do what they do because it works: it spreads terror, it inconveniences and disrupts societies, and it leads to the adoption of cumbersome security measures that increase the inconvenience and disruption and burdens law enforcement and antiterrorist forces with so many pointless tasks that they're actually less effective against future terrorism. If terrorism doesn't work, if the consequences are serious and the payoffs small, then terrorism will stop.
Despite the wish lists of bureaucrats, let's remember who the real enemy is. And let's take the war to him, not to the American people.
Don't sacrifice freedom. It's freedom, as President Bush pointed out, that we're defending.
Glenn H. Reynolds is Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, and writes for the Instapundit.Com website.