Human Rights

Your Rights: Use 'Em or Lose 'Em

The Bush administration's systematic attack on civil liberties is threatening to move from the aggressive to the surreal.
When I was growing up, there was a popular bumper sticker, seen mostly on the back of old VW vans that said: "What if there was a war and nobody came?"

I am reminded of that bumper sticker now, in light of this administration's unprecedented attack on civil liberties. What if our basic rights were taken away and no one noticed? What if our system of checks and balances was destroyed and everyone remained convinced it was happening to someone else?

Under current legislation, if you are "suspected" of terrorist activity, you can be picked up and held indefinitely, without charges and without access to a lawyer. If your loved ones call to find out where you are or if you are okay, they will be told nothing. After all, to disclose your whereabouts would infringe on your right to privacy. Don't bother clutching your passport to your chest; this law applies to all U.S. citizens.

And, if currently proposed legislation -- PATRIOT Act II -- passes, you may no longer even be a citizen. Under PATRIOT II, if you attend a legal protest sponsored by an organization the government has listed as "terrorist," you may be deported and your citizenship revoked. This is true even if you are only suspected of terrorist activity and nothing has been proven. More specifically, according to FindLaw's Anita Ramasastry, a U.S. citizen may be expatriated "if, with the intent to relinquish his nationality, he becomes a member of, or provides material support to, a group that the United Stated has designated as a 'terrorist organization.'"

I wish this were an exaggeration. The attack on civil liberties hasn't been subtle; rather it has erred on the side of being so extreme as to seem surreal. Some of the lowlights include:

  • The USA PATRIOT Act creates a new crime of "domestic terrorism" -- defined so broadly as to include civil disobedience and other nonviolent forms of resistance. The PATRIOT Act also greatly reduces free speech and privacy, allowing for Internet and library surveillance and eliminating the need for warrants before searching video or music store records.

  • The new Homeland Security Department, whose massive reorganization of over 22 different federal agencies includes a beefed-up immigration office, renamed the Bureau of Border and Transportation Security, with a focus on catching immigrant violations and keeping people outside of U.S. borders.

  • Total Information Awareness, recently renamed "Terrorist Information Awareness," which hopes to predict terrorist actions by analyzing such transactions as passport applications, visas, work permits, driver's licenses, car rentals, airline ticket purchases, arrests or reports of suspicious activities. TIA would make financial, education, medical and housing records, as well as biometric identification databases based on fingerprints, irises, facial shapes and even how a person walks available to U.S. agents.

Patriot Act II: Enough Already!

If all this weren't enough, currently proposed legislation would increase the PATRIOT Act's powers. The Center for Public Integrity ( lists the full provisions of the act, which include, beside the deportation of citizens who are suspected of consorting with or supporting terrorists:

  • Immunity from liability for law enforcement engaging in spying operations against the American people;

  • Immunity from liability for businesses and employees that report "suspected terrorists" to the federal government, no matter how unfounded, racist, or malicious the tip may be.

Furthermore, PATRIOT II explicitly allows the indefinite detention of citizens, incommunicado, without charges, and without releasing their names to their own family members. And unlike PATRIOT Act 1, which expires in 2004 unless it passes another majority vote, PATRIOT Act II never expires and removes the expiration date on PATRIOT I.

The Terrorist Smokescreen

If you're not engaged in any activity that could even be suspected of terrorism, no need to worry, right? Wrong. According to a Washington Post report, the Government Accounting Office has found that the majority of people prosecuted under new antiterrorism security measures were being pursued for reasons unrelated to terrorism, including credit card fraud and drug violations. "Many of [the] terrorism powers were actually being asked for as a way of increasing the government's authority in other areas," Tim Edgar of the ACLU said in the report.

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Perhaps no one you know personally has been arrested. Perhaps you've had no problem at airports. One of the reasons that the response to aggressive Homeland Security Measures has been muted is that, so far, the primary targets of "homeland security" have been immigrants, Arab-Americans and South Asian-Americans.

Tirien Steinbach, a lawyer at East Bay Community Law Center who works with indigent clients, says she has seen a noted increase in harassment of her clients since the passage of the act. "It's not the policies themselves," she says, "but the climate of repression that lets law enforcement feel as if they can get away with anything these days."

She sees her clients, and immigrant groups that have come under attack, as canaries in the coal mine -- a warning signal that others should heed. "Everyone thinks it only happens to some other kind of people," she says, "and by the time they realize the extent of the repression, it will be too late."

Mac Scott, of the Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants (CHRI), agrees. "The effects on immigrant communities has been devastating," he says. "So many people have had family members deported, detained, or -- at the very least -- interrogated." While it is difficult to get the exact number of immigrants detained and deported, since the government won't release these numbers, the ACLU, CHRI and other organizations put the number as reliably in the thousands. What can't be measured, however, is the increase in general harassment that immigrants have experienced and the heightened level of fear they feel.

New Coalitions and Strange Bedfellows

Because of that increased repression, some members of immigrant communities have been wary of organizing for fear of being targeted for harassment. Still, many have reacted to the attacks by organizing within their communities and reaching out to new allies.

"We have to work as a coalition," says Tram Nguyen of Colorlines, a national quarterly focused on race and public policy. "Communities are under such attack that they have to speak out. Despite the intense fear, we have seen Latino, South Asian and Arab communities sharing resources and supporting each other." She says these alliances are forged from the recognition that, under new civil liberties attacks, we are all at risk.

This recognition has also created an unusual alliance of libertarians, progressives and conservatives. Magazines such as The New American and groups including the American Conservative Union and the Eagle Forum have come out against the PATRIOT Act, TIA, and the Homeland Security Department. In part, the criticism from the right comes from those who remember a time when a base of conservatism supposedly stood for small government, less bureaucracy and more individual liberty.

Defending the Bill of Rights

One of the largest indicators of the new alliances forming in support of civil liberties and the biggest victory for rights advocates has been the success of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee ( in encouraging communities to pass resolutions and ordinances repudiating the PATRIOT Act and reaffirming the Bill of Rights. Since the passage of the PATRIOT Act in October of 2001, over 100 cities, towns and counties, including Baltimore, MD, Castle Valley, UT, and Detroit, MI -- and two states (Alaska and Hawaii) have passed resolutions directly opposing the legislation and reaffirming the importance of basic civil liberties.

While these resolutions are non-binding (so far only one city -- Arcata, CA -- has passed a binding ordinance), they do not mince words. Here is the language from the recently passed Alaska resolution:
It is the policy of the State of Alaska to oppose any portion of the USA PATRIOT Act that would violate the rights and liberties guaranteed equally under the state and federal constitutions...[The State] implores the United States Congress "to correct provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act and other measures that infringe on civil liberties, and opposes any pending and future federal legislation to the extent that it infringes on Americans' civil rights and liberties."
Close to 13 million people live in places that have passed BORD resolutions. One would hope that federal legislators would recognize the concerns of their constituents and take a stronger stand in support of basic rights and liberties. Bill of Rights advocates see the upcoming fights over PATRIOT Act II and Terrorist Information Awareness as well as the 2004 Presidential election as key places to let legislators know that their stand on civil liberties issues will be carefully watched.

Still, it is not enough to wait for politicians to act. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that it is only "other people's" liberties that are at stake. Our own government threatens our collective liberty far more than do outside sources. The response, as the Bill of Rights Defense Committees have shown, is to use our rights or lose them. Our right to think and speak for ourselves, without fear of spying neighbors, surveillance cameras or retaliation, is gravely threatened and only our collective and coordinated resistance will stop that threat.

Rachel Neumann is Rights & Liberties editor of AlterNet.
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