Classroom debate

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(HOST) Recent revelations about federal eavesdropping without warrants remind commentator Vic Henningsen of classroom debates about civil liberties.

(HENNINGSEN) Every year my students debate a familiar question: In a national emergency, may a president temporarily suspend civil liberties of a specific group of citizens in order to ensure long-term preservation of those liberties for all Americans?

From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War; from Japanese-American internment to the war on terror, our history provides many examples of such actions, always taken in the name of national security. Every president believed he was right. But, in virtually every case, history has judged that the attempted cure was significantly worse than the disease.

High school students are quick to join the chorus. Alert to injustice, they enjoy bashing the presidents responsible.

But things change when they’re forced to be actors rather than critics. “Okay, you’re president in a time of national danger. Advisors tell you that a specific, identifiable group of citizens
may be working to bring down the country. Suspending their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms spying on them, locking them up may guarantee national survival. What will you do?”

Most initially respond that civil liberties are sacred and should never be abridged. But others soon ask: “What if they really
could destroy the country? You’re the president: the buck stops with you. Other presidents got hammered for this, but can you be so sure that this situation is similar? What if you ignore the advice and you’re wrong? What happens to the country then?”

Two things always impress me. First, students respond with enthusiasm when they realize that, like us, people in the past didn’t know how things were going to turn out. Choices that seem obvious to us were anything but obvious to them. Past decisions look different when we understand that.

More striking is the extraordinary care students take as they consider the enormity of actions that shake the foundations of American liberty. They wrestle with past examples, and occa-
sionally discover that the past is not always a reliable guide. Sometimes they reluctantly decide that dire circumstances do require temporary suspension of the Constitution. When they do, they always create rules: “We need broad bipartisan support: our political opponents must agree that the crisis requires such dras-
tic action. It’s got to have a time limit; it can’t be indefinite. We must minimize damage done to innocent people and to our system of laws. And we’d better keep asking: ‘What if we’re wrong?’ “

For over thirty years I’ve listened to students debate the legality and the morality of limiting civil liberties. Their discussions blend careful thought with deep humility, a trait not often associated with teenagers, but very much present in these debates. The kids are prepared to act boldly, if necessary, but they’re also ready to think that they might be mistaken and to pull back if they are.

National leaders might want to drop in and listen.

This is Vic Henningsen in Thetford Center.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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