Carnegie Mellon University

The Unseen Dangers of National Emergencies

May 06, 2020

The Unseen Dangers of National Emergencies

By Paul Ahmed

Americans should view their civil liberties and freedom as essential – even in a national emergency.

The United States has faced many challenges throughout its lifetime, from the Cold War to 9/11 to the current COVID-19 pandemic to name just a few. At each of these points in our history, the US has had to grapple with the question of, “to what degree do we limit the civil liberties and freedoms?” Which are the principles that are central to the American identity. When countered with an international emergency it seems reasonable for Americans to respond with giving up a portion of their freedoms in exchange for more protection from the government, and in many cases indeed it is. However, there is a slippery slope in times of national emergency where giving up seemingly incremental amounts of liberty and freedom can quickly become a vast erosion of citizens’ civil liberties and freedom by the government.

During the Cold War there was pervasive fear of communists, creating what is known today as the “red scare.” With the looming dangers of Soviet Russia, it made sense for Americans to give in to the Joseph McCarthys of the government to ensure that Russian spies were not living in the US, and endangering US lives. Yet McCarthyism, instead of providing safety from Soviet spies, allowed for the ruining of American lives. Public figures, such as Dalton Trumbo the Hollywood screenwriter, to everyday American citizens, like that of Frances Eisenburg, a public-school teacher, were subjected to the ravaging effects of being questioned by the US House Un-American Activities Committee. It took all too long for Americans to reconsider the policies that trampled liberty, freedom, and the constitution during the Cold War.

Certainly, too long for the Rosenbergs.

The tragic events of September 11th are another point when Americans agreed to exchange freedom and liberty for protection. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US government vowed to take all necessary measures to protect the nation against terrorism. Twelve years later Edward Snowden exposed the troves of data that the National Security Agency was collecting about US citizens without their knowledge. This action begged Americans to again reconsider the bargain of freedom for protection.

Throughout history, Americans have repeatedly allowed far too much encroachment by the government on their liberty and freedom.

Today we find ourselves amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide and once again we have traded liberty and freedom for protection. No doubt the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike the Red Scare or 9/11, but regardless we must stay vigilant of the encroachments on our liberty and freedom. During this time, we must continue to question actions such as government partnerships between Google and Facebook, who store our most personal data, to track population movement. Together we can avoid the mistakes of previous generations and remind ourselves just how essential liberty and freedom are.