Back to basics

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As we head into the Fourth of July weekend, it feels appropriate to focus on the continuing erosion of our civil rights under the leadership of George W. Bush.

Your government’s got its nose in your personal business like never before. It’s into your telephone records, your Internet usage and your personal reading habits. And it just might be spying on you if you’re a member of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, worship as a Quaker or participate in an anti-war demonstration. It’s even targeted a group of oldsters against the war in Seattle called the “Raging Grannies” in its search of terrorists.

Your government is also imprisoning so-called enemy combatants for indeterminate terms, denying them basic rights to be charged with a crime or released.

A grievance strikingly similar to this last abuse was among the 30 presented to England’s King George III (no, that’s not a “W”) by American colonists in their Declaration of Independence. Signed on July 4, 1776, that document laid out the underpinnings of American democracy. Though the principles were novel then, Thomas Jefferson presented them as the “common sense” of the time: People are created equal, they have unalienable rights, and they can come together to form a government to protect those rights.

It’s how we protect those rights that’s giving us trouble.

Some Americans—like 69 percent of the Americans who told USA Today/Gallup pollsters in May that they support the Bush program to collect phone records of Americans—willingly cede our rights in the name of fighting terror.

But there’s a growing group in America that believes the current administration has gone too far in restricting our rights. The same USA Today/Gallup poll reveals that while only 11 percent agreed in June 2002 that Bush had crossed the line, 41 percent now believe the government has gone too far.

Terrorism is a real threat. But fear is a funny thing. It makes for a docile, easily controlled populace. There are some who believe the fear is greatly exaggerated. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a 2004 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is one. Clark told attendees at the annual Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference on June 16: “The world terrorist enemy has been given far too much credit. It’s a very small number of very angry people who have a feeling of powerlessness. This is not a war; it’s a long police action.” As retired supreme allied commander of NATO, Clark knows about warfare, and he says an “endless war on terror” is not only unnecessary; it’s also wrong.

Should we justify loss of our civil rights for a police action? Will we become so used to fewer rights that we’ll forget we ever had civil liberties?

Thomas Paine’s 1776 analysis of the issue in Common Sense stands as a warning today: “A long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”

Before such abominations become the custom of our country, we must regain our own common sense and demand that a more sensible balance between protecting our civil liberties and keeping us safe from terror be restored.