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Respecting Our Civil Liberties In The Aftermath Of The World Trade Center Attack

by Paula Clark and Donna Lieberman

September 2001

Last week’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was devastating for the tens of thousands of people whose lives were lost or directly jeopardized by this barbaric act. Beyond the enormous human tragedy of the event, however, important questions are arising for all Americans about balancing legitimate concerns for security with the precious freedoms and civil liberties that lie at the core of our society.

Over the coming weeks and months, there will be considerable debate in communities across the county about a range of security proposals. While people of good will may disagree strongly about the merits of specific proposals as they arise, there are certain principles that most people now can agree upon that must frame consideration of all proposals. Moreover, there are certain things that we should be doing now to preserve our civil liberties.

The starting point for our society’s response to this terrible tragedy must be one of careful and thoughtful deliberation. While it may be necessary and appropriate for all level of government to act with urgency, it would be a grave error to act without according full and serious consideration to any proposals that would serious infringe upon civil liberties.

A case in point is the special session of the New York State Legislature convened by Governor Pataki last week. On Sunday, September 16th the Governor announced the session, and the language of four bills was received by staff members late that evening. Among other things, these bills created a new category of terrorist crimes, created a potentially broad ban on support for various activities, established enhanced felony penalties for crimes labeled as terrorist ones, and extended the death penalty to terrorist-related murders.

The following morning the Legislature met and passed the bills with virtually no discussion. Indeed, the normal practice of allowing advocates and lobbyists to communicate with Assembly members on the floor was suspended, and as a consequence, lobbying of Assembly members was in effect prohibited during this special session. Shortly after their passage, Governor Pataki signed these extraordinary measures into law.

Whatever one might think about the merits of legislation such as this, all New Yorkers should be alarmed by this stampeding of the decisionmaking process. Beyond the physical threat posed by potential terrorist activity, the greatest danger we now may face is one of adopting extraordinary measures that may have broad and long-lasting consequences for our free society. Whether it is in Congress, the New York State Legislature, or the Rochester School District, any security proposals that would curtail civil liberties must proceed in a measured manner in which there is full consideration of the basis for and consequences of such measures.

Beyond guarding against thoughtless adoption of security measures, government at all levels now should be taking certain actions to protect New Yorkers from the wave of mindless retaliation that this attack seems to have unleashed. Government officials — including Mayor ?? — and community leaders must be loud and clear in denouncing, as has Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, retaliation against Arab-Americans and others because of their perceived ethnicity. Law enforcement must be prompt and vigilant in responding to reports of ethnic harassment and attacks. School officials should consider a whole range of steps to protect members of the school community, including communications to all students and employees, special reporting systems for acts of harassment, special protective measures for students traveling to and from school, and development of curriculum that will foster tolerance and understanding. These steps would represent important strides toward upholding the values that are so important to our society.

Like so much of the United States, Rochester has a proud tradition of cultural diversity and respect for freedom and civil liberties. As we go forward in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, we have the opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate the value of that tradition.

Clark is the Director of the Gennessee Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Lieberman is the Interim Executive Director of the NYCLU.

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