Column: Civil Liberties in a Post-9/11 Climate
By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, people of all walks of life in this country united in the fight against terrorism. In the last eight weeks, however, the Bush Administration has undermined that unity with an unprecedented assault on the United States Constitution that threatens the basic values that lie at the core of our society.
Early in October published reports disclosed that hundreds of persons had been arrested and were being detained without criminal charges having been filed against them; many were held in solitary confinement without access to family members and were pressured to agree to “voluntary” deportation without legal representation. Later that month the Administration rushed through Congress a sweeping anti-terrorism bill that authorized lengthy detentions and vastly expanded government authority to monitor telephone and e-mail communications while reducing judicial oversight of that monitoring. And as the numbers of detainees grew, the Administration in late October issued emergency regulations authorizing law-enforcement officials to eavesdrop on conversations between detainees and their lawyers.
In November the Administration announced that it would interrogate 5,000 men who have entered the United States from certain countries since January 1, 2001. And in the most alarming development to date, President Bush on November 12 signed an executive order displacing our entire civilian judicial system by authorizing the creation of military tribunals that could conduct secret trials on American soil using secret evidence and that could order the execution of defendants. Noncitizens can be subject to these military tribunals with nothing more than a designation by the President that such would be “in the interest of the United States.”
While there are countries -- Iraq and China to take two notorious examples -- where people are arrested and held without charges, soldiers are substituted for judges and jurors, and defendants are executed following trials behind closed doors and on the basis of "evidence" never disclosed to the defendant, the United States has not been one of them. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of our country has been a commitment to fair and open criminal proceedings conducted by independent civilian officials and jurors.
That commitment now is under siege. Yet those who support these draconian measures argue that short-term sacrifices of civil liberties are necessary and justified to preserve our long-term security. This argument is wrong and dangerous.
It is wrong because the consequences of major incursions on civil-liberties are rarely “short-term.” The internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II permanently destroyed careers and forever altered the lives of tens of thousands of men, women, and children whose only offense was to be of Japanese descent. Moreover, when we make “exceptions” to fundamental rights, those exceptions become precedents that too often are used to justify future and even broader abuses.
And the danger in the argument that long-term security concerns justify short-term civil-liberties violations lies in its view that our fundamental rights undermine our security and thus that their diminution makes us safer. To the contrary, one of the greatest sources of strength for our country is our commitment to fairness and our respect for the rights of those accused of wrongdoing by the government. When obtaining a conviction becomes more important than assuring a fair trial, the potential for government abuse becomes enormous.
No one doubts that these extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. But we all should question the Bush Administration’s headlong rush to scrap fundamental rights that have served this country since its founding.