by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
October 25, 2002
FOUR FREEDOMS WE'VE LOST SINCE SEPT. 11
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- What has happened to your legal rights since Sept. 11, 2001?
Here's a refresher for you:
In short, the federal government can arrest virtually anyone it deems to be a danger to national security, even without a formal criminal charge, and jail them indefinitely. It can deny you a lawyer or even a trial, public or secret. And all of this can happen without your family or friends and relatives ever knowing what happened.
This is what the "war on terrorism" has done to our Constitutional rights. Much of the damage was done on Oct. 26, 2001, when President Bush signed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (U.S.A Patriot) Act.
The House of Representatives passed this grab bag of police-state tactics by a 357-66 vote with almost no debate. Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold was the only Senator to vote no. At the time, Feingold called the U.S.A Patriot Act a "truly breathtaking expansion of police power."
Fear and stupidity stampeded Congress into approving, almost sight unseen, one of the broadest assaults on civil liberties in our nation's history. Despite assorted court challenges, the expansion of police power continues - an expansion which has done little to capture the masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks or to prevent future attacks. But this expansion has done much to undermine our hard-won Constitutional rights.
So far, the worst of it has been directed at people of color. The post-Sept. 11 dragnet of "suspected terrorists" put between 1,000 and 2,000 people - mostly Arab men - behind bars. They were held without charge in secret for months. Some are still in custody, while hundreds were deported. None were charged with any involvement with the Sept. 11 attacks and nearly all of the detainees have been cleared by the FBI of having any involvement with terrorism.
The average American thinks he or she is safe. But history has shown us that when a regime has absolute power, it's only a matter of time before anyone and everyone is subject to official intimidation and attack. After all, Attorney General John Ashcroft has frequently accused those who object to the curtailment of civil liberties as aiding terrorism.
In a speech given on Oct. 1 to a national conference of U.S. Attorneys - the folks who enforce federal law - Ashcroft said opponents of the Justice Department's antiterrorism measures have been guilty of "disdain and ridicule" and that their opposition amounted to "capitulation before freedom's enemies - the terrorists." In Ashcroft's mind, there is no reason and no need to strike a balance between civil liberties and security and anyone who disagrees is automatically suspect.
The Bush administration has not been shy about using the Sept. 11 attacks to advance an extreme rightist agenda, and the expanded police powers that came with the U.S.A Patriot Act and with other executive orders are one part of that agenda.
As we've seen from the bits and pieces of information that has dribbled out over the past few months, the Bush administration didn't show a great deal of interest in protecting the security of ordinary Americans before the Sept. 11 attacks. Since the attacks, we've seen more secrecy, more disinformation and more repression. What we haven't seen is more security - which comes not from more police power and draconian laws, but from reducing the causes of insecurity.
President Bush managed to alienate the entire world and squander all the goodwill that existed in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in pursuing a long-cherished desire among the far-right to see total U.S. economic and military domination of the world. And he has managed to alienate Americans by pursuing a strategy that states the Constitution doesn't matter when there is a "war" on.
It's too late for this session of Congress, but the time has come for Americans to start reclaiming the hard-won rights guaranteed by the Constitution. It's time to demand that the Bush administration respect our civil liberties. It's time to repeal the U.S.A Patriot Act.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).