We currently live in extremely challenging times and it doesn’t look like it will become easier anytime soon.
The tragedies of 9/11 happened two months after I started as Executive Director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. From that day until the present, the erosion of our civil liberties has been frightening. The traditional battles of the ACLU have expanded tenfold, and in the name of national security and the war against terrorism, we have witnessed the stripping away of the principles and freedoms that our country was founded upon.
We can all recognize the chilling historical fact that our government overreacts and overreaches in times of crisis. Pres. John Adam’s support for the Alien and Sedition Acts, the racist resettlement of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the abuses of McCarthyism during the Cold War, the repressive and illegal conduct of the FBI and CIA during the Vietnam War – our history bears vivid witness to the readiness with which our government has sacrificed fundamental liberties in the name of national security.
Now, with the “war on terrorism” the government is relying on all of us to forget our history. The ploy to make us all believe that first raised its ugly head with the introduction and passage of the USA Patriot Act in October 2001.
This Act undermines the system of checks and balances, which protects everyone from overzealous law enforcement by restricting the role of the courts, it creates a new broad crime of domestic terrorist, it allows for sneak and peak searches and gives the government the opportunity to monitor your library, financial and medical records.
The ACLU is fighting the shroud of secrecy that now hides much of the government’s actions. Attorney General John Ashcroft continues to fight release of the names, charges and where the more than 1,200 people who have been detained since Sept. 11 are being held. And regardless of an appeals court rebuke of the administration (“Democracies die behind closed doors”) in one of the ACLU’s lawsuits, the attorney general continues to fight to conduct secret immigration and deportation hearings.
In addition, since Sept. 11, race and religion have become proxies for suspicion. The government has treated thousands of innocent Arabs, Arab Americans, and Muslims as suspected terrorists. Visitors from specific countries have been fingerprinted, the government has tried to ban the employment of any non-citizen as an airline screener, and it has interrogated thousands of young men around the country who were not suspected of any crime.
Since Sept. 11, the government also has unleashed a new wave of spying on law-abiding citizens. With a stroke of the pen, Attorney General John Ashcroft loosened guidelines that limit FBI spying, allowing agents to infiltrate political meetings and houses of worship without any evidence of criminal activity.
When will the government stop its grab for power? No time soon. It was recently revealed that the attorney general’s staff has secretly drafted new legislation – the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, a USA Patriot Act II. Despite the lack of congressional inquiry into how the powers already granted in the USA Patriot Act I have been used – or abused – by the administration, the draft legislation contains sweeping new law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers.
Patriot Act II would authorize the government to create a DNA database of “suspected terrorists,” strip citizenship from any American who supports even the legal activities of any group the attorney general labels “terrorist,” and nullify court-approved orders that limit political surveillance by state and local law enforcement. The restrictions on political surveillance were hard-fought victories for civil liberties during the 1970s.
In the name of fighting terrorism, we are witnessing the destruction of the Bill of Rights and the other foundations of our democracy. We must to stand up to those, like our attorney general, who are trying to convince America that freedom needs to be curtailed in order to make us safer. A false choice if there ever was one! Not unlike our nation’s beginnings, patriotism means resistance.
Every good line of resistance requires educating and organizing. With that being said, over 25 organizations across the state of Connecticut have come together to sponsor a day-long conference on Preserving the Bill of Rights. Workshop topics include privacy and technology, immigrants in America, censorship of free thought on the campus and the First Amendment.
Teresa Younger is the executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
PDF version of ‘People united can preserve the Bill of Rights’