Happy Independence Day. I am an American now, but I wasn’t always one. I did not grow up with what many Americans take for granted: freedom of speech, the right to dissent, the right to hold assembly, the right to a fair trial–in other words, the Bill of Rights. So it’s with grave concern that I’ve been watching what’s happened to our civil liberties since September 11. In the ten months since the horrific attacks, the government has steadily curtailed many rights that had been guaranteed by law. The FBI now has greater powers to monitor mail, email and phone conversations. It can access library records. It can even access medical and financial records. Privileged communication between attorney and client can be monitored if the client is held on suspicion of terrorism. Law enforcement agencies now also have the right to investigate citizens for criminal matters without establishing cause, if it is for “intelligence purposes.”
To be sure, there has been some opposition to these rollbacks, but none of it strong enough to stop them from taking place. In fact, pundits are quick to point out that, in times of war, civil liberties are often curtailed. The problem with this view is that this is not a traditional war. There is no defined enemy, no specific army, and no exact battleground. Saying that we are at war against terrorism is like saying we are at war against violence, or against drugs, or against murder. You can jail offenders after they have committed crimes but you can never be sure when the next will happen. There is no foreseeable time in the future when we might expect some of these rights to be restored. And what guarantees do we even have that the loss of civil liberties is temporary? In the middle of the melee, no one seems to be bringing up this point.
Of graver concern is the case of the “detainees.” The government holds several hundred people (the Attorney General will not disclose the exact number), most of them Arab or Muslim, many without the right to a lawyer or the right to know the charges made against them. Their families cannot attend court proceedings. Their lawyers have limited access to the evidence, if any. The USA Patriot Act also enables the Attorney General to detain non-citizens based on mere suspicion. If this sounds like Kafka’s The Trial, that’s because it is, except on a mass scale.
Proponents of these proceedings say that the “detainees” are non-citizens. However, the Bill of Rights does not discriminate between citizens and non-citizens. Anyone physically on this land has the right to be treated with fairness. The “non-citizen” excuse has a long history, from pre-war Germany to our United States. A few centuries ago, slaves brought from Africa were considered non-citizens and therefore not subject to the protections of the law. It took three hundred years for slavery to be abolished, and another hundred years for blacks to have equal civil rights. How long will it take us to give today’s non-citizens the rights that the Constitution already provides for them?
As Americans, we are bound to “support and defend the Constitution.” We ought to regard the curtailing of freedoms as a threat to the transparency necessary for the system of checks and balances to work properly. Losing freedom is not a guarantee of greater national security, but it is a surefire way to encourage harassment, silence dissent, and threaten the ability of people to govern themselves.