September 6, 2002

Commentary

On the Anniversary of September 11th

A Time to Step Back and Ponder our Civil Liberties

By Victor Menaldo

All Americans are entitled to speak their mind. This goes for Americans and non-Americans alike, as all human beings tend to use their tongue to speak rash words. In this way, reflexes tinged with emotions, like excitement, anger, hate, often colonize our rationality.

Americans’ tendency to speak their minds, based on political birthright alone, is usually the handmaiden of complaints and an accomplice to misgivings. Meanwhile, the private opportunity to introspect upon difficult issues, to think elevated thoughts, is rare. And it is rarer still for us to capitalize on our democratic right to free speech, to recruit the public institutions built to shelter this right, like universities, public hearings and newspapers (yes, newspapers) as platforms for us to share prudent analysis and engage in thoughtful debate.

So, in honoring the heroism of last September 11th, we are reminded of the fact that since last September we have readily indulged many issues of political, social and cultural import. And particularly since last September, this has actually been a valuable, cathartic and necessary opportunity.

But it has been almost a year since September 11th. And now, it is due time to leave emotion behind, to stop this naked indignation in its track. Our deepest fears about imminent threats have receded and we are now poised to discuss security issues in a calm and collected manner. American debate must change and it has changed, for the most part.

We have to start speaking seriously about the ramifications of our initial reactions to the attacks. Undeniably, the attacks sparked a wave of civil liberties violations. Many individuals, both those in the government and in society at large, used the attacks as a naked pretext to discriminate against vulnerable populations, wrapping themselves in the red flag of collective security, spun in the cloth of patriotism.

The Fourteenth Amendment outlaws blatant discrimination, although a case cant has been made for abrogating this privilege when there is compelling evidence that it foils the attempt to mitigate clear and present danger. However, military tribunals, it was shown, were an overreaction. Yet, the Justice Department seems intent on protracting fears that are no longer warranted and, by the same token, practices that are no longer just, as it continues to stress that it is now dedicated to “continuing to strengthen the hand of those who fight terrorism”.

It is more urgent and more appropriate than ever to ask: what is freedom anyway? Is it personal privacy, the right to prevent the government from impinging upon our personal lives? Is freedom more practicable, more visceral: the right to own property, to be able to start a business at our whim, to stay the call of the tax collector? And most importantly, must we always stick closely to principles like civil liberties, even come hell or high water?

Most Americans would immediately agree that curtailing freedom is completely unacceptable and never warranted by any contingency. Americans of all political stripes frown upon violations of property, trials without recourse to lawyers, expropriation of private property by the government. These evils must be denounced, perhaps louder than the attacks themselves. And, lest we forget the Fourteenth Amendment we must return to the unequivocally fair war against arbitrary, gratuitous and blatant discrimination, based on natural attributes like sex, race and class.

Yet cold and calculating reason urges me to entertain the devil advocate’s position on freedom in general and the Constitution in particular. Is the “kingdom of freedom” we have set up here in America an unsustainable fantasy? Is there any value in taking the position that many security hawks have recently taken, many of whom condone the curtailment of civil liberties in the wake of what was a national tragedy of historic proportions? Should we rely on the view that there is compelling evidence to suspend certain freedoms, for certain individuals, who we presume pose a clear and present danger?

But what happens when we err, as has happened often since the attacks? What if we screen the wrong people and violate their freedom unduly, by impinging on their happiness, sequestering their property and, literally, arresting their lives by holding them in indefinite detention? What is the final tally when we find out that it was all, in the end, in vain? And even if some of us sleep a little better at night, what about those detainees currently in custody?

Many of those in custody and of those recently deported after the government clamped down on so-called “immigration violations” are fellow Hispanics. They are immigrants who have come to the United States to pursue precisely the freedoms we are defending: the right to work and earn money without arbitrary constraint: the right to become citizens and to vote for their own representatives. Their quest to provide for their families certainly does not hijack American values.

Yet, there is a lot of common sense appeal to the assertion that skin color, religion, accents or even clothes tell us something about a person, in some cases tell us “all we need to know” about someone. Sure, this information often registers somewhere in our subconscious, allowing us to take mental shortcuts based on snapshot evaluations of others.

And now we can get to the real issue. What image comes to mind based on the words turban-clad, bearded and Koran-carrying individual ... nothing at all? How about this vision: an Arab male, an Arab Muslim male? Sure enough, an image pops up in our head, a flesh and bone individual, the mental picture of someone is conjured. And perhaps, the first few adjectives enlisted in the first attempt to invoke an image, now fit perfectly into the profile of the Muslim male of Arab ethnic extraction iterated in the second list of adjectives.

But, can we, with adequate certainty, go further still? Can we read between the lines, both the lines that make up the first and the second sentences above; lines that beckon for one to attach ideas to the now more vivid image? Do we picture an angry male, perhaps a religious fanatic, an angry religious fanatic who speaks a strange foreign tongue, who moves quickly, furtively and threateningly perhaps?

If this is the case, is this a rational interpretation of the above descriptions, even if one based upon the meager three adjectives that it is based upon?

So now we have achieved enough distance from the events of September 11th to step back, ponder and debate. And our reactions were, at best overblown and many were, as with locking individuals up and continuing to keep them behind bars without a trial, unjust. Can we continue to justify maintaining two distinct tracks of freedom, one for those who are not suspicious because their race or sex are not proxies for danger and higher levels of vigilance and one for those who, because of their looks or beliefs, trigger alarm bells. I am afraid the constitution will not entirely suffice, as the opinions from the courts often lag behind events happening on the streets. And we are forced to think about this for ourselves and through public dialogue.

Victor Menaldo is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Political Economy.

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