Among the Cold War’s more fascinating legacies, the tales of double agents and dangerous subterfuge are the stuff novels are made of. In an age when gathering information was crucial to maintain the balance of power in a nuclear age, it was perfectly in order for Ted Kennedy, the Senate’s liberal lion, to introduce the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1977, providing a judicially mandated framework for the surveillance of foreign entities in the States. Partially curbing liberties seemed not such a bad price to pay to preserve American foundations in the face of Red Terror.
But in the post-9/11 world, such measures face more vocal opposition. The Bush administration was often accused of engaging in a systematic campaign of wiretapping and snooping, violating core Fourth Amendment rights. What’s more, amendments to the FISA provided retroactive immunity to the government agencies responsible for wiretapping and the telecom companies abetting it. Electronic surveillance no longer needed the approval of the FISA court set up under Kennedy’s original 1977 bill. Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives voted to extend the FISA Amendments Act for the next five years without much real debate or discussion.
The core question during the Cold War — which is now asked more confidently — is whether drastic times call for such drastic measures. That question sets up many others about freedom and how far the rights in the Constitution can be interpreted.
The preservation or advancement of society as a whole — or the greater good — is often cited as a justification for the state stepping into our lives, livelihoods and bedrooms. But there are dissenting voices that see the balance between civil liberties and national security deteriorating.
A recent ruling by a federal judge of the Southern District of New York struck down a provision of the FISA Amendments Act, which allowed the government to indefinitely detain someone “substantially supporting” terrorists. This ambiguous wording meant that even people like journalists talking to terrorist fronts or informers without disclosing their location or other information could face the prospect of being shipped off to a holding center.
Yale-NUS College prompts the same questions. In an age where a university’s success — financial and image-wise — depends on globalization, many would argue that the opening of a new college 311 years after the birth of its American counterpart would be a brilliant deal, sweetened by the Singaporean government’s financial muscle and keenness at having Yale open shop.
However, the concerns now being raised are at two distinct levels, both of them having much to do with the balance between global advancement and liberty. First is the obvious concern over the curtailing of liberties on the campus of Yale-NUS, with local laws clamping down on political activism and sexual orientation.
Second, however, is the notion that liberty and freedom are not relative ideas or lofty motifs tucked away in a dusty old book but real issues that we can and must judge according to quasi-universal standards. The freedom enjoyed in Yale’s Singaporean variant must be akin to the sort experienced on the greens of New Haven.
The premise of institutional success has hence been attacked in both Yale’s venture to Singapore and the introduction of the draconian FISA Amendments Act. Opponents have believed that their liberties and freedoms are too dear to be sacrificed, no matter what prudential justification authorities may provide.
Both initiatives show some promise on the whole — who doesn’t want to catch terrorists or open the doors of a liberal education to an ever-expanding array of people? But what the virulent opposition to both displays is the truth that the part may be as important as the whole, and even the smallest part must not be forgotten.
The journalists or innocents who could be caught in a loophole in the FISA Amendments Act may be such a part, but violating their inalienable rights represents a failing of the entire initiative. All the students enrolling at Yale-NUS may not engage in political activities or have sexual orientations that the authorities would take issue with, but the hindrances faced by those who do will deliver a verdict against that institution. And the defense of these parts — the defense of the rights of the individual — is a dream that must never be allowed to die.
Dhruv Aggarwal is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.