When I was growing up there was a popular bumper sticker, seen mostly on the back of old VW vans, that said: "What if there was a war and nobody came?"
I am reminded of that bumper sticker now, in light of this administration's unprecedented attack on civil liberties. What if our basic rights were taken away and no one noticed? What if our system of checks and balances was destroyed and everyone remained convinced it was happening to someone else?
Under current legislation, if you are "suspected" of terrorist activity, you can be picked up and held indefinitely, without charges and without access to a lawyer. If your loved ones call to find out where you are or if you are OK, they will be told nothing. After all, to disclose your whereabouts would infringe on your right to privacy. Don't bother clutching your passport to your chest; this law applies to all U.S. citizens.
And, if PATRIOT Act II passes, you may no longer even be a citizen. Under this proposed legislation, if you attend a legal protest sponsored by an organization the government has listed as "terrorist," you may be deported and your citizenship revoked. This is true even if you are only suspected of terrorist activity and nothing has been proven. More specifically, according to Anita Ramasastry of the online legal guide FindLaw, a U.S. citizen may be expatriated "if, with the intent to relinquish his nationality, he becomes a member of, or provides material support to, a group that the United States has designated as a 'terrorist organization.'"
I wish this were an exaggeration. The attack on civil liberties hasn't been subtle; rather, it has erred on the side of being so extreme that it seems surreal. Some of the lowlights include:
-The USA PATRIOT Act creates a new crime of "domestic terrorism" -- defined so broadly as to include civil disobedience and other nonviolent forms of resistance. The PATRIOT Act also greatly reduces free speech and privacy, allowing for Internet and library surveillance and eliminating the need for warrants before searching video or music store records.
-The new Homeland Security Department, whose massive reorganization of more than 22 federal agencies includes a beefed-up immigration office, renamed the Bureau of Border and Transportation Security, with a focus on catching immigrant violations and keeping people outside of U.S. borders.
-Total Information Awareness, recently renamed "Terrorist Information Awareness," which hopes to predict terrorist actions by analyzing such transactions as passport applications, visas, work permits, driver's licenses, car rentals, airline ticket purchases, arrests or reports of suspicious activities. TIA would make financial, education, medical and housing records, as well as biometric identification databases based on fingerprints, irises, facial shapes and even how a person walks, available to U.S. agents.
If all this weren't enough, proposed legislation would increase the PATRIOT Act's powers. The Center for Public Integrity (www.publicintegrity.org) lists the full provisions of the act, which include, besides the deportation of citizens who are suspected of consorting with or supporting terrorists:
-Immunity from liability for law enforcement officials engaging in spying operations against the American people;
-Immunity from liability for businesses and employees that report "suspected terrorists" to the federal government, no matter how unfounded, racist or malicious the tip may be.
Furthermore, PATRIOT II explicitly allows the indefinite detention of citizens, incommunicado, without charges, and without releasing their names to their own family members. And unlike PATRIOT Act 1, which expires in 2004 unless it passes another majority vote, PATRIOT Act II never expires and removes the expiration date on PATRIOT I.
If you're not engaged in any activity that could even be suspected of terrorism, no need to worry, right? Wrong. According to a Washington Post report, the Government Accounting Office has found that the majority of people prosecuted under new antiterrorism security measures were being pursued for reasons unrelated to terrorism, including credit-card fraud and drug violations. "Many of [the] terrorism powers were actually being asked for as a way of increasing the government's authority in other areas," Tim Edgar of the ACLU said in the report.
Perhaps no one you know personally has been arrested. Perhaps you've had no problem at airports. One of the reasons that the response to aggressive Homeland Security Measures has been muted is that, so far, the primary targets of "homeland security" have been immigrants, Arab-Americans and South Asian-Americans.
Tirien Steinbach, a California lawyer who works with indigent clients, says she has seen a noted increase in harassment of her clients since the passage of the act. "It's not the policies themselves," she says, "but the climate of repression that lets law enforcement feel as if they can get away with anything these days."
She sees her clients, and immigrant groups that have come under attack, as canaries in the coal mine -- a warning signal that others should heed. "Everyone thinks it only happens to some other kind of people," she says, "and by the time they realize the extent of the repression, it will be too late."
Mac Scott, of the New York-based Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants (CHRI), agrees. "The effects on immigrant communities has been devastating," he says. "So many people have had family members deported, detained or -- at the very least -- interrogated." While it is difficult to get the exact number of immigrants detained and deported, since the government won't release these numbers, the ACLU, CHRI and other organizations put the number as reliably in the thousands nationwide. What can't be measured, however, is the increase in general harassment that immigrants have experienced and the heightened level of fear they feel.
Because of that increased repression, some members of immigrant communities have been wary of organizing for fear of being targeted for harassment. Still, many have reacted to the attacks by organizing within their communities and reaching out to new allies.
"We have to work as a coalition," says Tram Nguyen of Colorlines, a national quarterly focused on race and public policy. "Communities are under such attack that they have to speak out. Despite the intense fear, we have seen Latino, South Asian and Arab communities sharing resources and supporting each other." She says these alliances are forged from the recognition that, under new civil liberties attacks, we are all at risk.
This recognition has also created an unusual alliance of libertarians, progressives and conservatives. Magazines such as the John Birch Society's The New American and groups including the American Conservative Union and the Eagle Forum have come out against the PATRIOT Act, TIA and the Home-land Security Department. In part, the criticism from the right comes from those who remember a time when conservatism supposedly stood for small government, less bureaucracy and more individual liberty.
One of the largest indicators of the new alliances forming in support of civil liberties, and the biggest victory for rights advocates, has been the success of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (www.BORDC. org) in encouraging communities to pass resolutions and ordinances repudiating the PATRIOT Act and reaffirming the Bill of Rights. Since the passage of the PATRIOT Act in October 2001, more than 100 cities, towns and counties, and three states -- Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont -- have passed resolutions directly opposing the legislation and reaffirming the importance of basic civil liberties.
While most of these resolutions are non-binding (so far only one city -- Arcata, California -- has passed a binding ordinance), they do not mince words. Here is some of the language from the Vermont resolution passed at the end of May 2003:
...while the prevention of future terrorist attacks is a critical national priority, it is equally important to preserve the fundamental civil liberties and personal freedoms which were enshrined in the Bill of Rights over 200 years ago, and which has been preserved through a constant vigilance and outcry against periodic threats to its existence...
In addition, Vermont Congress-man Bernie Sanders has introduced legislation, the Freedom to Read Protection Act, that would exempt libraries and booksellers from having to turn over reading and purchasing records of their patrons -- another erosion of privacy under PATRIOT ACT I.
Close to 13 million people live in places that have passed resolutions in defense of the Bill of Rights. One would hope that federal legislators would recognize the concerns of their constituents and take a stronger stand in support of basic rights and liberties. Bill of Rights advocates see the upcoming fights over PATRIOT Act II and Terrorist Information Awareness, as well as the 2004 Presidential election, as key times to let legislators know that their stand on civil liberties issues will be carefully watched.
Still, it is not enough to wait for politicians to act. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that it is only "other people's" liberties that are at stake. Our own government threatens our collective liberty far more than do outside sources. The response, as the Bill of Rights Defense Committees have shown, is to use our rights or lose them. Our right to think and speak for ourselves without fear of spying neighbors, surveillance cameras or retaliation, is gravely threatened. Only our collective and coordinated resistance will stop that threat.