In the awful wake of the terrorist attacks of 9.11, it is no surprise to see a sudden rush to change laws that protect our basic civil liberties. Last week, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the need for a sweeping new expansion of government powers, including approval of new police powers, which would give law enforcement increased ability to monitor private phone conversations and to detain and deport immigrants who “may endanger the national security.” In addition to new electronic surveillance authority, Ashcroft asked Congress for expanded sharing of tax information and other data.
It’s not difficult to imagine what might be next on Ashcroft’s wish list: permission to monitor e-mail without probable cause, the OK to track hard drives, unwarranted phone tappings … even certain press liberties could soon be on the line.
Are these mere paranoid fantasies?
If history is any indication, they are not. In times of national crisis, American civil liberties are often the first thing to be thrown out the window. History’s most recent example: In 1942, the United States government took more than 100,000 Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast and threw them into internment camps. It’s shameful, but Sacramento’s own Congressman Bob Matsui was locked away in a camp with his family from when he was 6 months old until he was almost 6 years old.
This time, as our president moves us forward into a “long-term” war of unknown duration, let us hope our nation’s leaders remember that national security and civil liberties do not have to be at odds. The framers of the Constitution understood this and set up a system of checks and balances—especially by way of the court system—to safeguard our privacy and guard against government abuse of power. We can strike a balance between fighting terrorism and maintaining the freedoms and personal liberties that make up America. Meanwhile, we urge government officials and local law enforcement to increase their efforts to prevent and punish unwarranted attacks on citizens of Arab descent and members of religious minorities. Also, during a time of national crisis, the right to peaceful dissent, protected by the First Amendment, must be protected at all costs.
Thurgood Marshall knew that America was capable of suspending civil rights during a national crisis. But this most respected of U.S. Supreme Court justices was also fond of saying that ours is a country capable of rejecting simple solutions that compromise the values lying at the roots of our democratic system.
Let us pray that he was correct.