In Debate Over Patriot Act, Lawmakers Weigh Risks vs. Liberty

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from The New York Times,

Just one senator stood up to oppose the Patriot Act as a violation of civil liberties when it passed in the frightening, angry days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 14 years later, 77 senators voted to advance a bill ratcheting back its expansive scope.

To libertarians and civil liberties advocates, the shift underscores an evolution in thinking about the risks and trade-offs of terrorism, a recognition that perhaps the country went too far out of fear and anxiety. To national security conservatives, it represents a dangerous national amnesia about the altogether real dangers still confronting the country.

Beyond Washington, though, the debate that has consumed Capitol Hill in recent days reflects a country still deeply conflicted over the right approach to the threats of the 21st century. Even if Congress ultimately restricts domestic surveillance, it will leave intact the vast majority of the post-Sept. 11 programs authorized by two presidents. And the counterterrorism infrastructure built in recent years has become firmly embedded in American society.

Despite the Boston Marathon bombings and other violent attacks, Americans feel less scared of terrorism at home than at any point since Sept. 11, polls show, even as the rise of the Islamic State militant group in the Middle East and its beheadings of American hostages generated support for a tough response.

Americans want the government to go to great lengths to hunt down terrorists even at the expense of their own liberty, according to those surveys, yet also want limits on government spying because of privacy concerns.

“We want and need to be safe, but we’re now in a better position to take a deep breath, step back and look more carefully about how best to balance the competing interests in security and individual freedom,” said Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor who served on President Obama’s task force that recommended changes in surveillance programs.

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