The notorious suppression of civil liberties and attack on individual rights that occurred during the McCarthy Era was not an isolated episode of American politics. History has it that during every major war America fought or threat it expected, the government has limited the civil liberties of the citizens. Actually, it is safe enough to talk about the dilemma of civil liberties versus national security as a recurrent feature of the country’s politics. Traditional instances are the Palmer raids or what is called the “First Red Scare’ and the massive relocation of Japanese Americans during the Second World War and the abuses of the McCarthy Era. Such episodes are less and less exceptional. In fact they tend to be much more common than is generally recognized and much less necessary than their perpetrators claim.
A brief recapitulation of major American historical episodes is a very helpful tool to gain some perspective on the overall situation and to survey how the challenges of the past have been met.
The first challenge to individual rights came during the undeclared naval war between the US and France in 1798. Federalists in Congress took the opportunity to pass a series of acts, the most notorious of which was the Alien and Sedition Act which made written and spoken criticism of the government illegal and was said to have “virtually nullified the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press”. The act also required immigrants to reside in the US for 14 years instead of 5 to qualify for citizenship and gave the President the legal right to expel those the government considered “dangerous” (“Alien”)
Further violation occurred during the Civil War when President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. The term is Latin for “produce the body” and is used to “bring a prisoner before the court to determine if the person’s detention is lawful”. The United States Constitution Article 1, section 9, paragraph 2 reads: “the privilege of the writ of...