Empire editorial: Is the Assembly the place to decide the community's conscience on patriotism?

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

At last Monday's CBJ Assembly meeting a group called Juneau Citizens for the Defense of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights presented a draft of a resolution objecting to aspects of the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act and recent executive orders. A large group of boosters filled the Assembly chambers and time was allowed for a few to speak in support of their resolution.

In the course of the meeting the citizens group got carried away with their enthusiasm and disrupted the meeting by cheering and applauding their speakers and then booed Dale Anderson, the one Assembly member who attempted to restore order to the proceedings. As the presiding officer of the meeting, Mayor Smith set a poor precedent by failing in her charge to keep order. Was she being a good patriot or not? You be the judge.

The group succeeded, however, in drawing attention to a very important debate being held in communities throughout the United States. Some three dozen mostly liberal communities such as Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Madison, Cambridge, Eugene and Boulder have adopted resolutions similar to the one proposed locally.

The USA Patriot Act was passed by overwhelming margins in the Senate (98 to 1) and the House of Representatives (356 to 66). The law creates sweeping power for the federal government and has been criticized by civil libertarians and constitutional rights groups for weakening long-standing civil protections in law enforcement procedure.

In an ABC news report, Laura W. Murphy, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington National Office, said, "This law is based on the faulty assumption that safety must come at the expense of civil liberties. The USA Patriot Act gives law enforcement agencies nationwide extraordinary new powers unchecked by meaningful judicial review."

Speaking in defense of the act, after reviewing the Cambridge, Mass., resolution, Jerry Leone, the assistant U.S. attorney in Massachusetts and the anti-terrorism coordinator in the state, said the city leaders do not understand the Patriot Act.

"I think some people have formed misconceptions of what the intentions of USA Patriot are," Leone said. "If one is a civil libertarian, I think the first reaction is, 'Hey, that's one more tool for the government to infringe on our rights,' but if you look at the implementation of the law, that's not the case."

The U.S Justice Department, takes the firm position that the Patriot and Homeland Security Acts protect civil liberties and are fully within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution.

Logical, passionate arguments for either side of the war-or-peace question are being articulated every day around the world, a world that has changed dramatically in the past decade.

For the United States, the unspeakable, random acts of a very different kind of war caught the nation by surprise and tempered forever the measure of freedom we have. There are no laws in the United States that would have prevented the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks from doing what they did up to the point at which they acted. We have in a short time become largely comfortable with the fact that our airports have become garrisons where citizens from every walk of life are subject to search and seizure.

The ideals of liberty and freedom rest in the eye of the beholder.

The past week, the Assembly heard a strong, collective voice for one view of civil liberty. Others in our community support the Patriot and Homeland Security laws, and yet others may have sentiments that rest somewhere in between.

It is important and constructive for our community to be engaged in these issues. However, it is unreasonable to believe that a community as diverse as ours will come to a consensus on such a complex and divisive as the trade off between civil liberties and security at home.

It is inappropriate to place our Assembly members in the role of adjudicators on an issue that only the federal government can change. The Assembly should respectfully pass on taking a position on a resolution that is purely symbolic, and in need of far more examination and instead devote its attention to the many pressing local matters in its immediate jurisdiction.

There are plenty of avenues for free speech, peaceful protest and effective activism for groups such as Juneau Citizens for the Defense of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and others to take in pushing the very noble, patriotic and worthy cause they have embraced.

Don Smith

dssmith@juneauempire.com



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