I had originally titled this post with the Benjamin Franklin quotation: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” But on reflection, although the quotation is apropos, I find it a little too familiar, a little too hackneyed. The Bill Moyers quotation I ended up using is just as succinct and appropriate, so it became my title.
This post has taken me some time to produce and is the result of a number articles I have come across over the last week or so. I am indebted to the excellent organization, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, whose email newsletter provides a number of references each day. I heartily recommend subscribing to it and supporting the organization in any way you can.
The first article I read, which depressed and angered me more than I can express, was an August 25th article on OpEdNews, a self described “non-partisan, non-profit, bottom-up, progressive / liberal news, opinion, op-ed media site, activism tool and blog community”. It was the first article in a three part series titled “2001-2011: A decade of civil liberties’ erosion in America”. This series is written by Abdus-Sattar Ghazali, a freelance journalist and Executive Editor of American Muslim Perspective.
The article begins by talking about the brief history of the gradual erosion of our civil liberties and stated forthrightly that
“The so-called War on Terror has seriously compromised the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights of citizens and non-citizens alike.”
- Warrentless wiretapping
- Torture, Kidnapping and Detention
- The Growing Surveillance Society
- Abuse of the Patriot Act
- Government Secrecy
- Real ID
- No Fly and Selectee Lists
- Political Spying
- Abuse of Material Witness Statute
- Attacks on Academic Freedom
The key point Mr. Ghazali makes is that these erosions of civil liberties have taken place gradually, over time. They were originally justified as reasonable action to take against our foreign enemies, but have come to affect not only non-US citizens, but all of us.
In the second and third parts of the series, Mr. Ghazali describes how authorities at all levels from federal to state to local have expanded upon the powers given to them by a combination of Congressional and judicial actions. The expansive view of executive power originally espoused by the Bush administration, while initially criticized by President Obama, has come to be embraced and expanded by his administration.
Accompanying the erosion of our civil liberties has been an embrace of government secrecy, a serious threat to any democracy.
On the same day (August 25th), there was an article which appeared on the Washington Post website. This article, titled Why are we subverting the Constitution in the name of security?, was written by Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency. In it, he describes his attempts to stop the secret electronic eavesdropping and data mining operations that the government is conducting against American citizens. He concludes his piece by stating
“Before the war on terrorism, our country recognized the importance of free speech and privacy. If we sacrifice these basic liberties, according to the false dichotomy that such is required for security, then we transform ourselves from an oasis of freedom into a police state that crucifies its citizens when they step out of line or speak up against government wrongdoing. These are the hallmarks of despotism, not democracy. Is this the country we want to keep?”
Then, at the Los Angeles Time website on August 29, 2011, an article by Ken Dilanian, titled A key Sept. 11 legacy: more domestic surveillance, was published which described the escalation of FBI and NSA secret surveillance activities on ordinary Americans starting with National Security Letters and moving onto programs which tap into and accumulate the wealth of data that exists about each of us on the Internet. All of this surveillance and data gathering are happening without judicial oversight and leads to a situation where a single branch of the government, the executive, can decide on its own who and how it wants to investigate.
Mr. Dilanian concludes with a quote from one of the people he talked with for the story, Nicholas Merril:
“I want the America back that I was taught about in school,” Merrill said. “The one where there’s checks and balances, and where one branch of government can’t do everything on its own.”
Finally, there was an article On August 30, 2011 on Security News Daily by Sue Marquette Poremba, titled 10 Ways the Government Watches You, which lists less formal mechanisms which are in place which add to government’s ability to find out things it never could in the past. Many were and are incredibly useful to each of us in our day-to-day activities, such as one-pass systems to let you get through bridge or other toll situations quickly and easily and GPS which lets you find locations with little hassle. While useful, such systems increase the government’s ability to find out about where you go and what you do. While all the legal issues are still being resolved, there have been courts rulings that accessing such information doesn’t require a search warrant (with others that disagree).
Taken together, these articles and others describe a government that is taking the first steps towards the despotism that Thomas Drake describes. The executive branch is out of control, gathering more and more information about each of us, and stepping on Constitutionally guaranteed rights without concern. The legislative and judicial branches seem to have abrogated their traditional roles of providing a check on authorities’ actions. Just where are we as a country headed?
Let me finish this post by quoting the conclusion of Abdus-Sattar Ghazali
“Rights can never be taken for granted, Prof. Gary Orfield [of the UCLA Civil Rights Project] argues by adding: In a nation that rightly proclaims its commitment to freedom across the world, our freedoms at home are our most precious asset and any threat to them undermines our credibility everywhere in an age of instant global communication. Prof. Orfield reminds us that the history of the United States is that rights are not given, they are won and they must always be defended.
“The core challenge during the Obama era to civil liberties is to rollback the repressive policies of the Bush regime, while fighting any further erosion of constitutional rights. Many Americans resisted the attacks on civil liberties during the Bush administration. Over 400 local governments and several states passed resolutions supporting the Bill of Rights and objecting to parts of the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 laws, executive orders, and policy changes. Some cities passed ordinances directing police to facilitate, not impede, peaceful demonstrations.
“Attacks on civil liberties are not minor infringements on the rights of a few extremists. Today they affect a vast cross-section of Americans. It will not be too much to say that the chilling effect of denials of our democratic freedoms curtails political debate within the U.S.
“To borrow Paul Craig Roberts, an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, today Americans are unsafe, not because of terrorists and domestic extremists, but because they have lost their civil liberties and have no protection from unaccountable government power. One would think that how this came about would be worthy of public debate and congressional hearings.”