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Patriot Games: Civil Liberties after September 11
March 6, 2002
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 of powers.

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 peril now."

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 issues."

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 the Constitution."

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 Witch Hunt

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