Crisis trims civil liberties

Southeast Tides

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2004

I had a different column ready. Spent quite a bit of time writing it. Then I accompanied my friend Margaret to the Robert Greenwald film "Unconstitutional," by Nonny de la Pena. After the film, we heard members of the Hamoui family, Seattle residents imprisoned for ten months after the USA Patriot Act was passed at the end of 2001, and featured in the film.

The documentary and the event afterward opened my eyes. The column I wrote earlier suddenly seemed a waste of your time and the Empire's space.

If you don't know much about the USA Patriot Act you might wonder what the big deal is. In a word, "freedom."

Early in the film we learn that the act, printed in the middle of the night before emergency security measures were to be voted on by Congress, was not debated and was little understood by the politicians who supported it. And in fact, it was nothing like the bipartisan-supported and much-debated bill that came out of Congress after 9/11, the bill that most of our elected leaders thought they would be voting on that morning 45 days after Sept. 11.

In the three years it has been in effect, the Patriot Act sacrificed many of our freedoms in the name of security from terror, but has actually made our country less secure by alienating the very people who could help our government expose terrorists. And many of its provisions have nothing to do with fighting terrorists and everything to do with extending government control and surveillance over domestic citizens.

It isn't just the experts, politicians, and citizens represented in the film that conclude that the Patriot Act has gone way too far. Resolutions opposing the act have passed in hundreds of communities in 41 states. These communities represent more than 53 million people who believe that the act rides roughshod over principles of law that have protected Americans and visitors to America for more than 200 years. Moreover, four statewide resolutions opposing the act have been passed. These include a joint resolution of the Alaska legislature more than 16 months ago.

Most of us take our basic rights for granted, even as we pass through airport security checkpoints and are filtered through the various new screens against terrorist threats. But try and imagine a 6 a.m. raid on your home with FBI agents pointing guns at your head for asking why they're even there. Imagine imprisonment in solitary confinement for months and even years without charges, legal representation or a hearing. Or imagine being profiled because of the sound of your name or an affiliation of many years ago.

Unlike Michael Moore's relatively accurate but slanted portrayal of George W. Bush's rush to war in "Farenheight 9/11," de la Pena's film tells a tale of events closer to home and of people who could be our neighbors or even us. And the sources of information provide a bipartisan critique that is hard to rebut. Even former Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA), known in other contexts for defending the use of the Confederate flag, criticizes the act.

Thinking of these things, and trying to imagine myself in the shoes of the thousands of people who have been imprisoned or interrogated the past three years, I often draw a blank. It doesn't make sense. As insulated as I am from the realities of this brand of governmental terrorism, it's difficult to feel an appropriate level of fear and insecurity. Mostly what I feel now is anger at my government and the few ultraconservatives who run it.

Among the realities I do understand, however, is that the founding fathers wrote the Constitution and designed our system of checks and balances to protect us from precisely the kind of events that have unfolded since late 2001. It is one thing to realize that many if not most citizens of the world now view the United States as an imperial aggressor to be feared more than revered for our power. It's another to understand that our government has been using those powers on its own people, locking them up or interrogating them without cause or representation.

Don't take my word for it; see the film. My descriptions won't do it justice anyway. Unfortunately, if you don't believe me or won't see the film, you can't ask any of the thousands of those imprisoned in America after 9/11 who, unlike the Hamouis in Seattle, are still locked up.

If none of these present-day arguments against the USA Patriot Act and the Bush administration's desire to wage war first and ask questions later strikes you as relevant or worthy of your valuable time, please read anything by Thomas Paine. His thirteen messages to the people were aptly titled, "The American Crisis." Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine, says Mr. Paine would be "appalled at the America of George Bush and John Ashcroft, and chances are they wouldn't like him much either."

Like Paine's communiqués to the soldier and citizen during the American Revolution, the film "Unconstitutional" presents, "Nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments and common sense." In its own way, it calls for a revolt against the way our government has endangered the civil liberties that form the foundation of American democracy. I believe this is a cause worth fighting for, and hope that you do, too.

• Ted Wright is an assistant professor of education at Antioch University in Seattle and a former Juneau teacher.

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