Civil Liberties

Soundbite: Free For All

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For 20 years, social critic Wendy Kaminer has eloquently and ardently defended civil liberties. Post 9/11, that hasn't changed a bit, judging by the introduction to her new essay collection, Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today (Beacon). Terror war or no, Kaminer writes, basic liberties face constant challenge. "We always seem to be engaged in a war on something," she has said.

Based in Boston, Kaminer is the author of seven previous books, including Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety (2000). She prefers writing for magazines, and she appears regularly in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, and The Nation. "I don't write for the sheer pleasure of writing," she explains. "I want to communicate, and you can reach many, many more people with a magazine article than with most books."

Assistant Editor Sara Rimensnyder spoke with Kaminer by phone in September.

Q: Should we trade liberty for security?

A: When you ask people that, of course they're going to say yes. Nobody wants to be dead, and nobody can enjoy their civil liberties from the grave. But it's the wrong question. Every time we're confronted with a measure that would restrict our freedoms, what we should ask is, "How will this make us safe?" Then you can decide whether it's a reasonable tradeoff.

There were already many infringements on civil liberties before 9/11. It's important to keep saying that. It's not as if we've ever had a golden age for civil liberties. Now the most severe threats are military tribunals, the secret detention of immigrants, and the president claiming power to detain even American citizens and basically keep them incarcerated forever without formally charging them, as in the Jose Padilla case. People talk about the rise of big government after 9/11, but what we're seeing is the coalescing of power in the executive branch.

Q: Have we already seen the worst of these trends?

A: I don't think so. We haven't yet heard from the Supreme Court about categorically closing all deportation hearings, or whether the president can pick us off the street and throw us in jail forever without charging us. If the court decides that he does have that power, I doubt very much we will have seen the worst of it.

Q: Are these issues being adequately reported?

A: Bush, Ashcroft, and others are paying a lot of lip service to freedom. And for the most part, they're not being called on it. That's partly because people are scared. Many deeply want to believe that when the government summarily arrests 1,200 people, it's protecting us from terrorism. And that we can trust it to go after the bad guys and leave the rest of us alone. That's a very dangerous delusion.

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