Whenever a people suffer a serious tragedy, the usual phenomenon is a pulling together for support and assistance. Since Sept. 11, we have seen long lines at blood banks, increases in donations to United Way, and thousands of flags.
In the United States, we are a good people, who share strong feelings of caring, empathy, self-respect and a belief in ourselves. We have deep values embedded in a tradition of human rights, fairness and due process.
The United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. As a member of the UN, the United States is obligated to observe this declaration and follow its intentions. Article 3 of the Declaration of Human Rights states, ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’
Article 10 specifies that, ‘everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charges against him.’ These rights are widely accepted in the U.S. and are part of our core belief system. Unfortunately, these rights may now be in trouble.
In order for us to evaluate the consequences of actions on others by our government, we have historically depended on the media and our elected officials in Congress to keep us informed. But…
As regards the current crisis, major media representatives recently met with Pentagon officials to determine coverage policies on the ‘war against terrorism.’ There is now emerging a united ‘wartime’ understanding within the media, that they need to cooperate with the government by suspending investigative criticisms and stories that may challenge policy positions.
This even includes critical assessments of violations of human rights in the U.S. and abroad. Media is losing the will and ability to critically evaluate government actions. Even Jay Leno is going easy on jokes about President Bush and his cabinet.
Congress is also facing a loss of the ability and will to evaluate and critique administration’s policies and issues of human rights in the world. The White House is limiting crisis situation briefings to only a handful of members of Congress, and sharply restricting public access to news and information.
Congress, in the rush to support the president, has been giving carte blanche approval and huge funding for government actions that may have serious consequences on our core societal values.
The media and Congress seem to be abdicating their responsibility to protect our most sacred values, in order to show the world a united front against terrorism. Unfortunately, we are now seeing a fragmentation of human rights in the United States and abroad. Non-citizens are subject to arrest and jailing without charges.
Racial profiling is being proposed and accepted as a security measure necessary after the Sept. 11 tragedy, and increased electronic surveillance is being broadly initiated. Innocent people abroad are losing their rights to life, liberty and security of person by our ongoing military actions. These are the very same rights denied to our own victims in New York and Washington, about which we were so outraged.
Human rights are universal. They are not selectively applied depending on the circumstances. The people in the U.S. not only believe strongly in human rights, but also hold them very deeply in our collective hearts. We must insist that our core values not be compromised for security. Ben Franklin wrote, ‘They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’
We are a strong country. We must hold to our deepest values and beliefs. To do less is at our own peril and shame.
Peter Phillips is an associate professor of sociology at Sonoma State University and director of Project Censored, a media research organization.