Land of the free? Maybe not

Consider all the ways we’ve allowed our rights to be abrogated

I was moved when, toward the end of the Chico City Council meeting Tuesday night (Jan. 17), two young men stepped forward during the public-comment period to decry the loss of civil rights they believed was taking place in the United States.

Their voices were filled with hurt and anger and their phrasing was sometimes awkward, but their message was clear: Americans, in their fear of terrorism, are allowing their most sacred rights to be abrogated.

Both men spoke specifically about the National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama on Dec. 31. It contains a provision that allows the indefinite military detention of American citizens on American soil.

As Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro professor of public-interest law at George Washington University, writes in the Jan. 13 issue of the Washington Post, it’s getting so America no longer can call itself the land of the free. “In the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, this country has comprehensively reduced civil liberties in the name of an expanded security state,” he writes, and now “has much more in common with such regimes [as those in China and Cuba] as anyone may like to admit.”

He then offers a list of powers acquired by the U.S. government since 9/11. They include the assassination of U.S. citizens considered terrorists (such as Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son); the aforementioned indefinite detention; arbitrary justice (the president now decides whether a person will receive a trial in the federal courts or in a military tribunal); and warrantless searches.

The government also now has the ability to use secret evidence to detain individuals; to force the dismissal of cases against the U.S. simply by filing declarations that the cases would make the government reveal classified information that would harm national security; and to claim secret legal arguments to support secret proceedings using secret evidence.

But that’s not all. The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court now has the power to authorize secret searches of individuals who are not part of any identifiable terrorist group. And the Obama administration is using GPS devices to monitor targeted citizens without court order or review.

As Turley points out, these new laws “have come with an infusion of money into an expanded security system on the state and federal levels, including more public surveillance cameras, tens of thousands of security personnel and a massive expansion of a terrorist-chasing bureaucracy.”

Liberals who support these developments argue that President Obama would never abuse them, and Obama himself, when signing the NDAA, said he does not intend to use his indefinite-detention powers.

But, as Turley writes, “An authoritarian nation is defined not just by the use of authoritarian powers, but by the ability to use them.” Then he quotes James Madison, who “famously warned that we needed a system that did not depend on the good intentions or motivations of our rulers: ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary.’”

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.