Games: Civil Liberties after September 11
By Rene Bouchard
On Wednesday, February 27th I attended a public meeting sponsored
by The Nation Institute called Patriot Games: Civil Liberties
after September 11. The discussion was moderated by Phil Donahue.
Panelists included Hussein Ibish, Communications Director
of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; journalist,
Molly Ivins; Elaine Jones, President and Director-Counsil
for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; historian, Arthur Schlesinger
Jr.; and Nadine Strossen, President of the ACLU.
About 1100 people attended the meeting, filling the hall
to capacity and also filling a spill-out room where the meeting
was viewed on closed-circuit television. While it's unfortunate
that many people were turned away due to lack of space, it
is encouraging that there was an excess of demand for this
forum. There's been a perception of public complicity in giving
up civil liberties which is really a distortion. This idea
was underscored during the discussion when Hussein Ibish said,
"The fact that this discussion is not taking place is not
because the public isn't ready for it or won't be receptive
to it, it's that it's not being hosted."
This was an ambitious event, which set out to accomplish
more than it really could in two hours. In his introductory
remarks, Phil Donahue said, "Tonight we will pull back the
cloak of patriotism the Bush Administration has wrapped around
all these new laws and regulations it claims it needs, to
examine what lies beneath. What freedoms did we give up in
the name of national security, and once surrendered how do
we get these liberties back?"
As there was general agreement that true patriotism requires
a fierce concern for the protection of civil liberties, pulling
back the cloak of patriotism was easily done and we were quickly
propelled into an examination of the impact of the Patriot
Act on the Fourth Amendment, racial profiling, and the separation
Nadine Strossen: "The search authority which includes intercepting
emails, and web surfing and looking at medical records and
looking at student records--these powers extend to people
who aren't even themselves the subject of any investigation
as long as the government alleges that information might be
relevant to an investigation. You communicate online at your
Hussein Ibish: "There's really no doubt right now that in
the justice department there is a huge fight going on about
the status of racial profiling as a law enforcement technique,
generally...and there's clearly a wing around John Ashcroft
that wants to reverse official policy, official policy holds
that racial profiling as such is not allowed. And there is,
I can assure you, a massive struggle going on right now within
that department about whether or not to reverse that position."
Phil Donahue: "I'm compelled to remind the panel that we've
had an erosion of the fourth amendment for a long time. Cops
have routinely broken doors down, often in Black neighborhoods..."
Phil then relayed the case of an African American man in
Boston who died when 13 police officers raided the wrong apartment,
jumping the man and forcing food matter into his airway, causing
a fatal Heart Attack.
Phil Donahue: "That came on the front page and off the front
page .... We don't care. We appear to have a nation that is
passive about...fundamental rights...How we can expect any
excitement now that we feel so physically threatened?"
Nadine Strossen: "We want to get the stories out...let me
just tell you one story of a man who is our client...a very
respected Islamic community leader in Ann Arbor has lived
in this country for 20 years, 4 kids in this country. He was
breaking the fast of Ramadan in December and Government agents
stormed into his home and are pulling him out of his home
before he can even eat...his wife stuffs a few dates in his
pocket so he won't be starving as he's going off--who knows
where. And this man had an application pending for permanent
residency. Because of some technical, really small VISA violation
that generally is not enforced at all, if you have an application
pending for permanent residency--not only was he taken off
to first a local jail and then later a Federal prison in Chicago
where he can't get access to his family, he has been in Solitary
confinement since December. I understand that his family can
see him 4 hours a month."
Hussein Ibish: "That case is a very good example of a shift,
and it's happening also in the minds of the public as well
as the government, that really the notion of inherent human
rights...is being lost. ... The idea is that not only constitutional
rights, but even fundamental human rights somehow come with
a little blue passport. And what's being lost here is the
very careful wording of these amendments in the Bill of Rights,
the Fourth Amendment is a very good example. It protects persons,
it doesn't protect citizens. ...What the fourth amendment
protects against is unreasonable seizure of persons and properties
by the government without due process of the law. I'd like
someone to tell me what is a more unreasonable seizure of
a person than to arrest somebody without charge and hold them
indefinitely in detention without bond and no hearing."
Elaine Jones: "We are removing important underpinnings that
enable us to right wrongs among ourselves. It was the law
which has enabled us as a people..to move forward and still
hold together as a nation as we deal with these tough social
Nadine Strossen: "One of the worst things about the Patriot
Act is that it systematically takes away judicial review power.
There's no longer judicial review of the warrant request...there's
no longer judicial review of deportation proceedings, there's
no longer judicial review of interception of attorney- client
privilege, so even the potential safety net that courts represent
has been yanked away."
Arthur Schlesinger, making one of his only astute comments
of the evening, added, "This discussion shows how vital appointments
to the Supreme Court are from the point of view of interpreting
There was also some discussion of Iraq and how it fits, or
doesn't fit, into our War on Terror.
Hussein Ibish: "The debate we have to have now is about Iraq.
...The plan that's being touted in Washington is called the
Southern Strategy, which means basically using the opposition
forces in Southern Iraq as the advance forces for a U.S. attempt
to overthrow the Iraqi government. Well, who are the Iraqi
opposition forces in Southern Iraq? It's a group called the
Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution of Iraq. ...These are
right-wing fundamentalists. Now the United States has been
attacked by right-wing Muslim fundamentalists and one of the
first responses is to try to get behind a movement to overthrow
the regime in Baghdad and put in power a group of right-wing
Muslim fundamentalists. ...This is a debate we need to have
but we're not having because what we get instead is this rhetoric
about Saddam and Iraq and weapons of mass destruction and
axis of evil...suddenly the whole focus on the fact that al-Qaida
is, was, and may still be a real threat gets lost. Where is
Osama bin Laden? Who cares. Where are his lieutenants? Don't
know. What are we going to do about that? Never mind, let's
attack Iraq again. It'll be great. ...If you want a clear
example of a breach of international law--what appears to
be on the table with regard to Iraq, I don't think you can
find a better example. And the administration has already
announced that's planning to manufacture a crisis in May about
weapons inspections, an issue that's been dead for 3 years."
Molly Ivins shared many great anecdotes including this one,
"A state senator named Craig Washington, down in Texas, was
one time filibustering a flag burning bill. ... There was
Craig and he's about six or eight hours into the filibuster
and there's not a soul in the senate except me. I'm sitting
in the gallery and Craig Washington's just talking along and
suddenly he said very quietly, "Y'know, I think really prefer
someone who would burn the flag and then wrap himself in the
Constitution to someone who would burn the Constitution and
then wrap himself in the flag.'"
She also brought her great sense of humor to the discussion,
making such comments as "This whole deal is the fault of a
man named Page Keaton...he was Dean at the University of Texas
Law School when George W. got rejected by the Law School.
They took him at Harvard, but Dean Keaton wouldn't take him
at UT. If only they'd taken him into Law School, he might
have learned something about all of this and we wouldn't be
having these problems."
However, Molly Ivins was also a source of frustration for
many in the audience who began to shout "Not everything is
funny!" I think this frustration was largely the result of
a growing realization in the crowd that this event had to
offer much bad news, and little direction.
Many questions from the audience went unanswered, and many
issues were hardly touched. Oil didn't enter the conversation
at all, until actor, Danny Glover, brought it up in a brief
comment, in which he criticized the forum for not pushing
the conversation beyond what has been widely discussed already.
The usurpation of our votes in the 2000 election, and the
inauthentic presidency was brought up in questions by two
members of the audience, met with huge applause, and brushed
off by the panel.
What can we do? That was the biggest unanswered question,
a question echoed in Nadine Strossen's comment, "How do we
escape from the shackles that we're putting ourselves in?
Are there examples from the past where civil liberties have
been taken away by the government and then given back? One
of the many bad things about USA Patriot is that most of it
is not subject to a sunset provision, only a very few portions
of it are. ...it's very hard to turn it back."
The reason this question was so difficult for the panel to
answer is because it is for us to answer, ourselves. It is
really up to us to take action and to keep on taking action,
to write, to talk, and to protest.
Another member of the audience, Clark Kissinger, who organized
the first march on Washington against the "war" put it well
when he said, "My concern is that this whole attack on civil
liberties is in fact being driven by war. I mean after all,
the President had promised us a 20 year war, with no limitations
on geography. And while Nadine Strossen was right to say there
was no declaration of war, if you look at grant of military
authority to the President...right now he is authorized to
deploy Federal troops against any organizations or individuals,
domestically, in this country....There comes a time where
there's a point of no return in the loss of civil liberties
so we have a certain responsibility, don't we? I mean isn't
there a time that we have to take responsibility to resist?"
This necessary discussion, while it left much unsaid and
resolved little, was a step in the right direction, and I
hope it was also an inspiration to those who were there to
continue this conversation in our daily lives and actions.
It is time for us to take the responsibility to resist. The
ball is in our court.
Rene Bouchard is a performing artist and activist in New York
City. Please visit her website, Partisan