Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Free Speech and the War on Terror

Ryan McIlhenny


July 29, 2011
by Ryan McIlhenny

The recent terror attacks in Norway by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik have generated both sorrow and outrage around the world, revealing, once again, the multiple meanings of terror and the increasing difficulties in battling it.  When such horrific events occur, the array of familiar questions is brought to the public’s attention: Why did this happen?  How could it happen?  What can be done to prevent this from happening again?  Answers to the first two questions may be easier then the last (although I don’t want to presume, especially when peering into the human psyche).  But it is the last question that requires careful consideration.  Making decisions for the future is always a challenge. 

A knee-jerk reaction in the wake of such terrorist actions may be to pressure governments to increase their surveillance on the information shared among potential terrorists.  (Breivik saturated his mind with information freely transmitted in cyberspace by extremists.  He was especially inspired by America’s most notorious domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh.)  This would require interfering with the flow of information shared on the internet or through the mail. 

For citizens of the United States, preventing terror touches on two highly valued civil rights: the right to privacy and the freedom of speech.  Concerning the former, law enforcement must use the utmost care in culling evidence regarding a potential threat.  Agents are required to submit evidence to a judge, who then decides whether there are sufficient grounds for entering a citizen’s private life.  But the state is in error when, in the absence of hard evidence, it authorizes the nullification of any citizen’s right to privacy.  The 9-11 attacks, for instance, inspired the Bush administration and Congress to pass the Patriot Act, which authorized unwarranted wire-tapping, the reading of emails, and the opening of letters.  Such surveillance activities put tmany Americans under unnecessary suspicion,jeopardizing their very patriotism.  Unwarranted violations of privacy may further motivate the McVeighs, the Kahls, the Snells, or the Breiviks of this world towards violence.  Such intrustions may also lead to a kind of conformist mentality or an “anxious mood” among loyal citizens reminiscent of the McCarthy era. When it comes to privacy, officials in countries fighting terrorism walk a razor-thin line.  

The issue of privacy in regards to terror directly relates to the freedom of speech.  If citizens knew that government authorities had access to their letters, emails, pamphlets, journals, protest speeches, etc., they would think twice about what they could say to others even in the most private of circumstances.  While wisdom is needed when thinking about privacy issues, one sure-fire strategy in the defeat of terrorism of any kind is the support of free speech, including the speech of  “potential” terrorists.  If speech is threatened, then the ability to expose or challenge lies in the preservation of truth is equally threatened.  Furthermore, if we rely on agents to monitor what is said, then citizens have no reason to meditate, talk about, or construct arguments about what is true or right, making moral and political issues (like privacy) ostensibly irrelevant.  Ignorance grows in the absence of speech.  Without the freedom of speech, thoughtful citizens would not be able to offer a cogent response to the hate-filled spilth of disgraceful humans like Breivik, and the same questions will be raised again and again.

Privacy and speech must go together, but for Christians the latter often seems to have a more elevated position, since it is central to the Great Commission.  It is through the divine word, Jesus Christ, that all things are created, sustained, and ultimately renewed.  Likewise, it is this same word that must be taken to the ends of the earth by Christ’s disciples, bringing the message of shalom to a fallen world.  Breivik’s actions, as well as the actions of those who may follow in his footsteps, need to be opposed not only through deeds but by words—powerful words of love and justice. 

—Ryan McIlhenny, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of History at Providence Christian College in Pasadena, California.   

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”