Carnegie Mellon University

"America and the World" blog project

Under what circumstances can the government curtail civil liberties?

Students in IPS Taube Professor Kiron Skinner's "America and the World" class addressed this topic after watching and discussing an episode of the CNN documentary series "The Cold War." The discussion compared the beginning of the Cold War to the current fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and with help from IPS Research Fellow Abby Schachter, the students turned their thoughts and opinions into blog posts. The students used pseudonyms to freely express their thoughts.

Blog Posts

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By L.H. Patience

Although civil liberties are encroached upon in the United States during times of crisis, it is not due to an excess of tolerance on the part of the general public. In some cases, the United States has not taken certain sensible steps that other countries would because the public is afraid of government overreach. In some cases, the government has simply gone behind the public’s back to implement measures that weaken civil liberties. Often, both have happened during the same crisis. 

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By Sam L.L. Columbia

Americans allow too much encroachment on their civil liberties and other freedoms in the face of perpetual international dangers.

The founders acknowledged the need to restrict civil liberties in emergencies. Article One, Section 9, Clause 2 of the constitution reads, “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." The exigence of a crisis that makes restrictions both constitutional and acceptable for the social contract ebbs in emergencies. In emergencies, more rights must be sacrificed to preserve freedom and expedite a return to normalcy.

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By Hari Seldon

Even though America prides itself on an individualistic, laissez-faire “none of your business” philosophy, when faced with grave international challenges, it has always succumbed to a hive mindset, allowing too much encroachment into civil liberties.

The examples of such encroachment litter American history, particularly modern history when foreign powers began posing existential threats: Japanese internment camps during World War II, the Red Scare during the Cold War, detentions of over a thousand Muslims and the passage of the Patriot Act after 9/11.

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By Eli Rose

During serious international challenges, fear, anger, and uncertainty push Americans to give up too much encroachment on their civil freedoms.

The nationalistic ideal that Americans hold onto due to the country’s status as a global hegemon is often put to test when there is an international battle or emergency. The government’s response to events like the Cold War, 9/11, and Covid-19 has been to repress civil liberties and freedoms in order to ensure national safety. What follows is an American response of mixed emotions, but no emotions are more prevalent during national emergencies than fear and anger. Due to this whirlwind of emotions the American population, in general, allows too much encroachment on their civil liberties and other freedoms. 

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By Publius’ Great-great-great-great Grandchild

America was founded under the essence of freedom for every individual; but sometimes, a crisis looms so large it is necessary to forego some of those freedoms to guarantee the survival of our people and our democracy.

It sounds ironic, doesn’t it? The very thing that makes our nation appealing to the globe, and has for centuries, should be limited for the protection and preservation of our country.

But there are challenges that no one individual can solve in the face of an international emergency. No American could have generated the steel and food production that necessary to defeat the Nazis. No single American could have guaranteed our safety following the 9/11 attacks. Crises can only be defeated when the nation rallies to fulfill the country’s goal, and sometimes that will not happen unless the government mandates it.

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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.

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By Adele Dazeem

In times of grave danger and total chaos, Americans are completely justified in allowing a slight encroachment on their civil liberties in order to better the country as a whole. The United States of America was founded on the idea that we must stick together. Whether it be a global pandemic like Covid-19, or a national disaster like 9/11, it is the duty of Americans and their government to take the right steps to ensure the safety and advancement of their country. When putting the country before one’s self, it is easy for basic civil liberties and freedoms to be infringed upon and allowing that to happen is what defines a true American. Someone who is willing to put others and the greater good above personal motives, with acts as simple as staying home for a couple of weeks.

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By Grace

When it comes to suspending citizens’ civil liberties in the face of a national or international emergency, United States officials have yet to find a balance between the danger of the situation and the freedom of the people they represent. In 1863, President Lincoln imposed Martial Law to suspend the right of Habeas Corpus in the lead-up to the Civil War. The Cold War years saw massive suspension of certain civil liberties, including freedom of speech and association, to root out communism during the Red Scare.  In the years after 9/11, the Bush Administration passed the Homeland Security and the PATRIOT Acts, both suspending rights for the sake of fighting the War on Terror. And today, in 2020, the US is responding to the international COVID-19 pandemic with widespread business closings and stay-at-home orders.

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By Thomas A. Anderson

The civil liberties granted to citizens by the United States constitution are the hallmark achievements of one of the world’s largest democracies, however Americans need to realize when protecting their cherished freedoms ultimately does more harm than good.

During major global events, life within the US will inevitably change drastically. This is evidenced by our current situation. Our once lively city plazas are barren, gathering places only to flocks of oblivious birds. Our homes have transformed into classrooms and corporate offices. Restaurant tables and chairs are stacked in corners and back rooms. Global emergencies, like COVID-19, and existential threats to the US mandate that the way in which we live adapt alongside US domestic and foreign policy.