When speech and religion cannot be free

Friday, November 14, 1997

One of the most difficult dilemmas for the First Amendment advocate is
whether the threat of terrorism justifies violation of the individual’s
freedom of speech and religion. In this excerpt from a 1995 book, Benjamin
Netanyahu, now prime minister of Israel, makes it clear that Americans
should rethink their ideas about civil liberties.

“Of course, there is something laudable in the efforts of Western
democracies to hold their governments to the highest possible standards
when it comes to respecting the rights of their citizens. … Yet the threat
to the basic civic rights of not fighting terrorism are
even more debilitating to a free society. … The belief that freedom of
speech and religion are absolutes that cannot be compromised even in the
slightest way out of very real security concerns is merely tantamount to
replacing one kind of violation of rights with another, even worse
violation of those same rights. … In this regard, there is apparently a
moment of truth in the life of many modern democracies when it is clear
that the unlimited defense of civil liberties has gone too far and impedes
the protection of life and liberty, and governments decide to adopt active
measures against the forces that menace their societies. …

“A good example of the absurdity of shielding terrorist incitement is
provided by the case of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric
whose Gamaa Islamiya terror network has been charged with the World Trade
Center Bombing and with planning attacks on targets such as the Lincoln
Tunnel. Rahman was allowed into the United States in 1990 from Sudan, after
a history of perfidy in his native land, which included serving time for
recruiting members for the Islamic terrorist faction that had assassinated
President Anwar Sadat. His fatwahs in Egypt and the United
States are among the bloodiest ever issued … . Yet none of this was
sufficient to justify the scrutiny of the American authorities, because
Rahman’s freedom of action in the United States was protected by the right
to immigrate into the country and, once there, the right to practice his
brand of freedom of speech and religion, which called for outright murder.
It was only after Rahman’s minions had already killed five and
injured hundreds in the Twin Towers in Manhattan that some of those rights
were curbed. It is clear that a fresh look is needed at the way the United
States presently chooses which liberties are worthy of protection.”

From Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and
International Terrorists,
by Benjamin Netanyahu. New York: Farrar Straus
Giroux, 1995, pp. 32-42.