Shredding the Bill of Rights

In a full-page ad in The New York Times, Feb. 25, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out that Attorney General John Ashcroft ram-rodded through Congress the USA Patriot Act in Oct. 2001 with sweeping new FBI powers to spy on the people in the name of fighting terrorism.

“Incredibly,” the ad states, “Ashcroft’s Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 (‘Patriot Act II’) would grant government agents even broader authority to search our homes, learn what we read … where we vacation … what drugs our doctors prescribe.”

Patriot Act II would allow authorities to strip Americans of citizenship if they “assist” terrorist groups. Ashcroft had said earlier anyone who criticizes his witchhunt policy is “assisting” terrorists.

Patriot Act II would provide for more warrantless searches and wiretaps as well as secret arrests and detentions.

The ad warns, “When the government attacks core liberties it goes too far. When the Attorney General removes vital checks and balances that have kept us safe and free for more than 220 years, it causes permanent damage to our civil liberties and civil rights.”

We agree with the ACLU. We have seen mass detentions of Arab-Americans, Asians and Muslims, yet the number with probable links to terrorism can be counted on one hand. Ashcroft engages in racial profiling and mass intimidation as he and his agents try to break up the coalition movements battling George W. Bush’s right-wing agenda of corporate thievery at home and war abroad.

Grassroots pressure persuaded Congress to terminate the Pentagon’s so-called “Total Information Awareness” spy operation headed by Iran-Contra criminal Adm. John Poindexter. City Councils are approving resolutions ordering local police not to cooperate in Ashcroft’s witchhunt.

Congress must act as true patriots and vote down Patriot Act II – and repeal Patriot Act I.

Nightclub safety

Safety in nightclubs and all assembly spaces – be they restaurants, office buildings or train stations – has come to the public’s attention recently with the tragic deaths of 21 people in Chicago and 97 people in West Warwick, Rhode Island. In spending so much on preparing for our worst nightmares – war and terrorism – we must be careful that we do not neglect more common killers.

In Chicago, people died because emergency exits were locked or blocked; in Rhode Island, the cause was a combination of a quickly spreading fire, no sprinkler system and unmarked emergency exits.

Whether the fire in Rhode Island was the fault of the band, the club’s owners or both, one thing is certain according to experts: if the building had been equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, fewer people – perhaps even none – would have died. While those who were negligent should be held responsible, the problem is more than a few careless individuals.

The importance of safety in public spaces is being pushed aside largely for financial reasons. Builders associations lobby against requiring sprinkler systems in new homes, and club and restaurant owners claim the cost of installing them could put them out of business.
Meanwhile, the enforcement of already existing building codes requiring such safety precautions varies widely. The local and state departments, handed the task of inspecting and enforcing safety rules, are stretched extremely thin, especially with the increased demands of “homeland security.” State and local budget deficits, and resulting cutbacks and layoffs, will only make this situation worse.

Spokespeople for the building and entertainment industries have said this week that they can’t and won’t police themselves. State, local and federal governments are the public’s only defense against industries that feel that 118 lives are not worth the cost of a sprinkler system, or fixing building code violations. People must lobby for funding to protect themselves and others and demand that government agencies do their jobs.