Still a free country

On September 11, the Twin Towers weren’t the only structures that came crashing down. So, too, did many civil liberties in America, although most Americans remain unaware of the fact. There were no planes crashing into the Bill of Rights, only our trusted government officials. Passed quickly after 9/11, the USA Patriot Act dramatically increased the power of the U.S. government to imprison innocent people for indefinite periods under mere suspicion of some knowledge about terrorist activities.

The new book It’s a Free Country: Personal Freedom in America After September 11, edited by Danny Goldberg, Victor Goldberg and Robert Greenwald, challenges the idea widely publicized in the media that domestic liberties were mostly unaffected by terrorism. One of the most shocking things about It’s a Free Country is the inclusion of statements by members of Congress. The media presented post-9/11 America as a glorified oneness of thought in support of the war on terror, while sharp criticisms by representatives Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Bob Barr, R-Ga.; Barney Frank, D-Mass.; Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; and others were almost invisible in the press.

Suppression of free speech during war has a long history, which is explored in this book. Historian Howard Zinn describes how the U.S. government during World War I prosecuted a film called The Spirit of 76 under the Espionage Act on the grounds that portraying our ally, Britain, as the enemy during the American Revolution was seditious. The book also includes cartoons, lyrics and poems.

But the core of the book is composed of the stories and testimonials of those who faced retaliation after September 11. Lawyer David Cole tells the stories of unjust detentions: Ali Maqtari, for example, a Yemeni jailed without charges for two months, despite having no links to terrorism and passing a lie-detector test. At other times, the war on terrorism seems comical, such as when federal agents investigated a 60-year-old retiree at a gym who criticized Bush’s links to the oil industry, or when agents questioned a North Carolina student for having an anti-Bush poster in her apartment.

One essay was written by recently arrested Sami Al-Arian, the University of South Florida professor who was fired because he appeared on the Fox News Channel show The O’Reilly Factor. Al-Arian is typical of those who find themselves under fire in the war against terrorism: He has no links to any of the 9/11 terrorists, and he denounced all terrorist attacks on innocent civilians. Yet, because of his past criticism of Israel and his guilt-by-association links to Palestinian terrorists, Al-Arian was deemed too dangerous to teach computer science.

In this war on terror, we are all well-advised to follow Bush spokesman Marlin Fitzwater’s demand to “watch what we say.”

For those who want to destroy civil liberties, the war on terrorism has become a convenient launching pad for a war against the Constitution. After all, the deaths of more than 3,000 people can be used to justify almost anything. Yet, no one questions the false presumption that a free society is an unsafe society. Norman Siegel of the American Civil Liberties Union writes, “Years from now, historians and our children will ask us if we were aware of the secret detentions, military tribunals … and other encroachments on our freedoms. Eventually, we will also be asked what we did in the face of these violations of freedom.”

The terrorists of September 11 could not bring liberty crashing down to the ground; that crime we are accomplishing by ourselves.