By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
George Bernard Shaw once asserted that for every perplexing, thorny problem society faces, there is a simple solution…and it is wrong. This is particularly true in troubled times like these, when quick-fix answers are sought for the complex questions spawned by the tragic events of September 11.
History is strewn with examples of simple solutions that later proved not only to be wrong, but also embarrassing to our whole nation. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government wondered what to do with thousands of Japanese-American citizens. The answer--and a simple one it was--was to lock them away in prison camps until the war was over. It seemed to make sense at the time. Now it is regarded as one of the darkest moments of the last century.
Earlier, in the midst of World War I, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which, in short, made it illegal to criticize the government. Thousands were prosecuted under this law. A minister was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for preaching that war was un-Christian. A newspaper editor was convicted for questioning the constitutionality of the draft.
Until it veered out of control, Senator Joseph McCarthy's massive witch-hunt to root out the threat of communism in the United States was considered a patriotic, nation-saving endeavor. Now, that, too, is an embarrassing blemish on our history.
Six weeks ago, these anomalies seemed to exist only in a distant past. We felt sure we would never repeat them. But the terrorist attacks on our soil have created an atmosphere so charged with emotion and peril that we are now at risk of forgetting these important lessons of history.
We cringe at the Sedition Act of 1918, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and McCarthyism. We know our government leaders in the twentieth century were generally wise and decent people who generally made wise and decent decisions. But we must ask what motivated them to trample so blindly on our rights of expression, association, privacy and equality.
The answer precedes the question. For it was precisely these kinds of government actions that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to curb with the Bill of Rights. Our Virginia forefathers knew well that the main objective of any government is to keep order, and that freedom tends to make society a little less orderly. Thus, even the most enlightened government, if left unchecked, has a tendency to reduce individual liberties, especially in times of crises.
Right now, government officials are discussing a number of measures--such as national identifiers for all citizens, unlimited detention of some suspects, searches without warrants, unrestricted wiretapping, and racial and ethnic profiling at airports-- that seem awfully attractive in this time of unease. But the wise among us realize that, if our government were allowed to do any of these things, we would be living in a police state, not a free society.
Everyday, we hear public officials say that if we give up our freedoms in order to make our nation more secure, the terrorists have won. This is true, and it is comforting to hear it, no matter how often it is repeated. But when it comes time to act, the same public officials put on their government hats and ask us to give up more liberties.
For example, the Patriot Act of 2001, which was signed into law by President Bush on October 26, expands the government's ability to freeze assets, wiretap, intercept Internet communications, and detain suspects. It will be used to fight terrorism, certainly, but it also gives the government unprecedented power to pry into and meddle with the lives of ordinary citizens.
The effectiveness of this new--and others that are being proposed-- remains to be measured. Squelching protests during World War I did not contribute to winning the war. McCarthy's unmasking of a few ragtag communist sympathizers did nothing to topple the Soviet Union. And we now acknowledge that the Japanese-Americans we imprisoned and stripped of their property were simply American citizens with skin of a different color, no more or less likely to undermine the war effort than any other citizen.
Why is it that, even before the passage of the Patriot Act, we knew a lot more about the terrorists than we did six weeks ago? The reason is obvious. Government officials, alerted by the attacks and supplied with more resources, are simply doing a better job. And they are doing that job while still working within the framework of the existing law.
Civil libertarians have long argued that we are a nation rich enough and resourceful enough to be both secure and free. The events of September 11 rightly woke us up to the threat of terrorism, but they should not frighten us into being less free.
There is both reassurance and good guidance to be found in the words of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. "This country stands tallest in troubled times," he wrote in a 1972 court decision. It is "a country that clings to fundamental principles, cherishes its constitutional heritage, and rejects simple solutions that compromise the values that lie at the roots of our democratic system."
We now look to our government leaders, especially the President and Congress, to take swift and decisive action to combat terrorism. But we must also remember that the inclinations of these individuals - regardless of the freedom-embracing language they use - is to envision the solution through government eyes. This means expanding government power in strategies likely to erode our basic freedoms as they are implemented.
As the citizens of the freest nation in the world, we have not just a right, but a duty, to stand tall as the true sentinels of liberty. We must let our government know that, while we want real solutions, we do not intend to sacrifice our freedom to get them.
If we are fortunate, we will avoid repeating the shameful acts of the past, keep government powers in check, successfully combat terrorism, and maintain our freedom.
Jefferson, Madison, and even George Bernard Shaw would be proud.