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Let Freedom Reign

More Americans are willing to trade freedoms for security

By Joy Lanzendorfer


The terrorists hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
--President George W. Bush, Sept. 20, 2001

On Sept. 11, 2001, America awoke to its vulnerability. Dangers previously associated with foreign nations were suddenly in our midst. Deliberate attacks targeting the most innocent of citizens and news of constant violence overseas continue to be reminders of our newfound weaknesses. Fear has infiltrated the nation, lurking in the back of people's minds. A shadowy enemy could be anywhere and could attack at any time.

A cry for new security measures followed the 9-11 attacks, and the government responded by passing a flood of new laws and policies, many of which impinge on our civil liberties. So, for the first time in generations, Americans are faced with some uncomfortable questions: Should we give up personal freedoms to ensure security? Is our society too free?

A new survey indicates that a sizable number of Americans believe that the answer to those questions is yes. One in two Americans think that the First Amendment gives us too much freedom. That and other survey answers indicate that we may be becoming ambivalent about our liberties, especially when it comes to the war on terror. Governmental intrusions are becoming accepted as a necessary measure. Last week, two separate appeals courts made decisions that grant the Justice Department the ability to use wiretaps and allow police to obtain e-mail messages of accused criminals.

While many of us seem unsure about our civil rights, there is a growing concern that laws and policies adopted since Sept. 11 erode the very foundation our country stands upon.

The fifth annual State of the First Amendment survey was given by the First Amendment Center near Washington, D.C., in collaboration with the American Journalism Review, and conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. The survey polled 1,000 people by telephone in June and July.

The survey has been conducted yearly since 1997. Though the number of us willing to restrict some civil liberties jumped this year, over the past few years the center has seen a trend among the population toward tolerating restricted freedoms. For example, in 2001, 39 percent of people surveyed thought the First Amendment gave too many freedoms, compared to 22 percent in 2000.

Tiptoeing through Land Mines

"This attitude toward the First Amendment has been building for a while," says Gene Policinski, deputy director of the First Amendment Center. "In the last couple of years, through the surveys and additional focus groups, we have seen a growing sense among Americans of wanting to avoid offensive language toward other groups. And then this year, because of Sept. 11, people are more afraid of terrorists and are more willing to restrict freedom based on that as well."

In the past, more Americans have said that they would be willing to exchange liberties for less interpersonal conflict. This year, political correctness--or at least sensitivity to other groups--still influenced answers on the survey.

Two-thirds of those polled said they would restrict public statements that might be offensive to certain racial groups, and over half rejected the right to display offensive art in a public place. Yet nearly 60 percent thought it was OK to make public statements that are offensive to certain religious groups, and another 60 percent thought that musicians should be allowed to sing offensive songs.

The American view toward freedom of religion, particularly Islam, remains mixed. Americans support the right of Muslims to rally for causes that may be offensive to other groups. But on the other hand, 42 percent said the government should have more power to monitor Muslims than it should have to monitor other religious groups.

"Here's where the fear comes in," says Policinski. "People would allow the government to monitor Muslims more closely than they are allowed to monitor anyone else, which seems like an anti-Islamic statement. Yet they are also willing to allow Muslims to hold rallies. Well, a rally is a public event and you can see what's going on.

"While Americans generally respect other groups," Policinski adds, "there is also a fear of the unknown lurking here, which is probably related to terrorism."

Of the five freedoms presented in the First Amendment, the freedom of the press was the least popular. While an overwhelming number (94 percent) support the right to say something offensive and three-quarters consider the right to free speech essential, almost half said the press has too much freedom in the United States.

While 57 percent think that newspapers should be allowed to criticize the U.S. military about the war on terror, 48 percent said that the press is too aggressive in asking officials for information on terrorism. Yet, most of those polled wanted more access to all kinds of information.

So although we support freedom of the press and access to information in the abstract, we seem unhappy with the press' actual conduct, explains Policinski. The numbers from past surveys indicate that this may stem from leftover sentiments from the 2000 presidential election, where incorrect early projections and other blunders shook the public's general trust of the media.

Aside from the view of the press, Americans seem to hold more than one contradictory belief about the First Amendment. Some of this may be due to a general lack of education. The majority finds current educational levels of civil liberties to be inadequate. Of those surveyed, 63 percent said the school system was doing a "fair" to "poor" job of teaching the First Amendment to students.

The survey itself seems to back this up. Roughly 60 percent of those polled could only name one of the five freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment: freedom of speech. After that, only 18 percent could name religion, and very few could name the other three, which are freedom of the press, the right to peaceable assembly, and the right to petition the government.

"Americans know their major rights in general," says Steve Estes, a history professor at Sonoma State University. "They may know that they can sit on a stump in the middle of campus and say what they think, but they don't always understand the legal ramifications of laws that are passed."

The survey's message is that while people generally support the abstract idea of rights, they may not support or understand the actual application of them, and therefore may not always recognize when those rights are being violated.

"Americans are upset about their civil liberties, but they don't really seem to know what it is they are upset about," says Policinski. "The combination of fear and a lack of information leaves the circumstances vulnerable to exploitation, since in this current situation, Americans are unlikely to question if their liberties are being threatened."

Playing to Fears

A few days after Sept. 11, government leaders, presenting themselves as a united front, passed a rash of new laws and policies without a lot of debate. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, a 25-year-old nonprofit and nonpartisan human-rights organization, recently released a report looking at the implications of these new regulations. While the organization calls some of the laws "smart, right, and inevitable," it says others have eroded or disregarded some of our basic liberties.

"Taken incrementally, none of these new tactics look that bad, but when you start to connect the dots, a new picture emerges," says David Danzig, spokesperson for the LCHR. "The new picture shows that some of the rights that we once thought were untouchable are now being taken away."

Danzig is quick to point out that not all of the new regulations are bad. Many of the new laws pose no threat to civil liberties, from providing police and intelligence agencies with state-of-the-art computer technology, to enhancing coordination and communication among law enforcement agencies, to increased security in public buildings.

But according to the LCHR, other regulations do violate some of the basic civic virtues taught in American middle schools today. The areas that are threatened include the balance of power between the three branches of government, the openness of the government, the right to a hearing before a judge and access to legal council, the right of privacy, and the idea that immigrants are "persons" under the Constitution and have certain basic rights.

Directly after Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued new regulations allowing federal officers to carry out surveillance on pretty much anyone they want without the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing. Activities like Internet surfing, for example, can now be used to generate suspicion of criminal activity, where before it was reversed. An individual had to be suspected of a crime before the government could use Internet surfing as a way to track illegal behavior.

In addition, there's the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or Operation TIPS, which is slated to recruit 11 million civilians with contact to people's homes--such as delivery truck drivers, mail carriers, or your cable delivery person--to encourage them to report any "suspicious activities." The Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency has just introduced the Total Information Awareness program, which aims to be a repository for huge amounts of personal information.

Another trend with dark implications is the right of the government to detain people for extended periods of time without filing charges. Noncitizens suspected of terrorism can be tried in military tribunals--without a jury or public hearing.

After Sept. 11, more than 1,200 immigrants were detained by the Department of Justice, many of them longtime residents, taxpayers, and some married to U.S. citizens. Of that number, 129 were held on criminal charges. After Nov. 8, 2001, the Department of Justice said that it would no longer release the number of individuals detained.

"Too often the way the government is approaching this problem is curtailing our rights without making us any safer," says Danzig. "Of the 1,200 immigrants that were detained after Sept. 11, very few were charged with anything. So here you have this massive violation of human rights, and it didn't even make us any safer."

On top of the 1,200 immigrants are the approximately 600 suspected Taliban and al Qaida members being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, who are from more than 43 countries and who are being held without any outside communication with the world.

All-Seeing Eyes

The government has also seen fit to find new ways to gather information on citizens. Librarians may now be forced to hand over records of what their patrons are reading. In some cases, federal officials can monitor communications between lawyers and their clients. The government's ability to conduct secret searches has also been expanded. Ashcroft can now designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations and can deport noncitizen members of the group.

And the list goes on.

Some argue that the liberal language of the Constitution allows for a fluid approach to rights. A lack of definition of critical terms used in the Constitution (what does it mean when the Bill of Rights talks about "due process of law" or "unreasonable" searches and arrests? for example) leaves them open to interpretation by the courts.

And the decisions of those courts are meant to change with the times, especially during wartime or national crisis. Thus, this line of reasoning goes, during war it is normal for rights to be curtailed; we should expect our government to be more active and to step-up security.

"Well, given the horrors that happened on Sept. 11, we wouldn't expect our government to have its head in the sand," says Danzig. "Some of the actions it has taken have been right and justified. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't still be cautious when it comes to something like our liberties. In times where the U.S. has removed rights, history hasn't looked too favorably upon it."

History in the Making

There have been many precedents for today's civil rights curtailments. Abraham Lincoln, for example, suspended civil rights during the Civil War, specifically habeas corpus, which protects Americans from unjust imprisonment. During World War II, Japanese-Americans, most of whom were American citizens, were held in internment camps.

"Historically, civil rights were curtailed when we were threatened from abroad and felt fearful and helpless, much how we feel right now as a nation," says SSU's Estes. "It happens less when the nation is actively at war because then we feel like we're doing something."

Perhaps the most apt comparison to today's situation is the Red Scare of 1919-1920 and the 1950s. America suddenly became aware of an insidious enemy lurking in its midst--communism. Then as now, the government took unprecedented actions in investigating those suspected of aligning with the enemy.

During the Red Scare of 1919-1920, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and his assistant, a young J. Edgar Hoover, enacted the Palmer Raids. Officials rounded up and arrested thousands of immigrants, similar to what the Department of Justice has recently done with the detainment of 1,200 immigrants.

Historically, laws restricting civil rights have not been permanent but can sometimes remain on the books for years, often until there is another crisis that calls for re-examination of those regulations. Cold War legislation, for example, stayed on the books until after Watergate in the early 1970s, when new distrust of U.S. leadership led to a reinvestigation of the government.

The historical precedents, the fearful atmosphere, the attitude some Americans have about civil liberties, and the lack of debate over new policies and laws could be adding up to a serious problem in the future.

"We're also concerned because this appears to be the beginning of something," says Danzig. "The war on terror is not likely to end soon, and if the government has curtailed freedom this much this quickly, what is going to happen in the future? This mode of operation will continue unless people start to say it's wrong."

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From the November 28-December 4, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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