One vivid image of the historical relationship between government power and individual liberties in America has long been the swing of the pendulum. It catches the nature of the perpetually changing balance between the two. When it comes to terrorism and civil liberties after 9/11, that pendulum swung strongly toward the power side of the equation and it has been slow indeed to swing back. Still, in several areas in recent years — torture, detention, and surveillance — there has been at least some movement in the other direction and from this delayed and modest backswing, there is a distinct lesson to be drawn about liberty and security in twenty-first-century America. The only problem is that no one has bothered to draw it.
Put in a nutshell: the liberties designed almost a quarter-millennium ago by the Founding Fathers still turn out to be curiously well-aligned with the security of this country and the safety of Americans, while the government overreach of this era has proved to be anything but. As it turned out, those heavy-handed government policies meant to pry our lives open in an invasive and expansive way, torture information from suspects, and lock away people forever, it seems, without charges or trial, were remarkably counterproductive and ineffective — and that reality, rather than the concerns of civil libertarians, was essential to whatever backswing of the pendulum we’ve seen in recent years.