It’s Still a Free Country

On Sept. 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.

Since, as in wars past, the worst punishments were inflicted upon immigrants or non-white citizens, few Americans spoke out in opposition. A year later, a Freedom Forum poll indicates that a substantial number of Americans express support for limiting freedom in the name of fighting terrorism.

Most Americans think that the worst consequences of terrorist-hunting at home have been shoe doffing at airports or other mere inconveniences. They believe, after years of watching cop shows, that you can't simply hold people incommunicado for months on end without charges, refusing to let them contact an attorney or anyone else.

They're wrong. The "USA-Patriot" Act passed after 9/11 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" (RDV Books), 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 America post-Sept. 11 as a glorified oneness of thought in support of the war on terror. These sharp criticisms by Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Bob Barr (R-Ga.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) were almost invisible in the press.

The media failed to report the fact, as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) observed, that the USA Patriot Act was "strengthened" to restrict civil liberties by after-committee "backdoor maneuvers" without the knowledge of members of Congress who voted mere hours after the legislation was finalized to approve it, unaware of the changes made by the Bush Administration.

Suppression of free speech during war has a long history explored in this book. Historian Howard Zinn observes how the U.S. government during World War I prosecuted under the Espionage Act a film called "The Spirit of '76" -- on the grounds that portraying our ally, Britain, as the enemy during the American Revolution was seditious. As Zinn notes, "Without the right to speak freely, to dissent, we cannot evaluate what the government is doing, and so we may be swept into foreign policy adventures with no oppositional voices, and later lament our silence."

Former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon writes, "In moments of passion, administrations can grossly violate our basic civil liberties -- and when those actions are taken in times of tension, the American public will back the president." Simon observes, "It is better to have the unpopular awkwardness of following the Constitution and the law than the popular crudeness of violating our important heritage of freedom."

The book also includes cartoonists and lyrics, including a poem by singer Ani Difranco: "and we holds these truths to be self-evident:/#1 george w. bush is not president/#2 america is not a true democracy/#3 the media is not fooling me."

Making up the core of the book are the stories and testimonials of those who faced retaliation after Sept. 11. Lawyer David Cole tells the stories of unjust detentions; for example, Ali Maqtari, a Yemeni jailed without charges for two months after he accompanied his American wife to Fort Campbell, despite having no links to terrorism and passing a lie detector test. At other times, the war on terrorism seems comical, like the federal agents who investigated a 60-year-old retiree at a gym who criticized Bush's links to the oil industry, or the agents who questioned a North Carolina student for having an anti-Bush poster in her apartment.

One of the essays is written by 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.

USF at first claimed ludicrous grounds for Al-Arian's firing: that he violated his contract as a tenured professor by appearing on a talk show without distancing himself from the university; and that he could be fired solely for receiving death threats that "disrupted" the university. A university in which a professor can be fired for getting a death threat is neither safe nor free.

After being denounced even by conservative groups and Bill O'Reilly, on Aug. 21, 2002, the university announced a change in its tactics: Al-Arian would now be fired for his "terrorist" activities a decade earlier, even though he had never been charged with any crime and a USF report had cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Technically, firing a tenured professor for his speeches and conference criticizing Israel is an even clearer violation of academic freedom, which is why USF avoided making this argument at the start. But in the wave of hysteria surrounding the war on terrorism, anyone labeled a "terrorist" can be fired without good reason. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wanted Al-Arian fired, and his self-appointed Board of Trustees pressured USF to fire Al-Arian on any grounds.

Sami Al-Arian was not the only victim of academic freedom in the war on terrorism (see Another firing in academia occurred at the University of Miami, where an Iranian medical technician whose birthday fell on Sept. 11 was dismissed for saying sarcastically, "Some birthday gift from Osama bin Laden."

In this war on terror, we are all well-advised to follow Bush spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater's demand to "watch what we say."

For those who desire to destroy civil liberties, the war on terrorism becomes 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. In fact, the Bush Administration crusade against immigrants almost surely cost us the cooperation of people who could have provided useful information. Any immigrant who might report future criminal activity will now be dissuaded by fear of illicit detentions.

Norman Siegel of the ACLU writes, "Years from now, historians and our children will ask us if we were aware of the secret detentions, military tribunals, eavesdropping of attorney-client conversations, and other encroachments on our freedoms. Eventually, we will also be asked what we did in the face of these violations of freedom."

Freedom may seem more difficult during the heady rhetoric of a "war against terrorism," but unless we defend it during troubled times, we will undermine the foundation of American government. The terrorists of Sept. 11 could not bring liberty crashing down to the ground; that crime we are accomplishing by ourselves.


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