Rights Watch

Freedom in a time of terrorism


Walking through New York's Penn Station the other day, I looked at the young men in military fatigues wielding machine guns and was struck by the thought that this was something I never thought I'd see in America. In Russia, where I lived until the age of 16, military men in city streets were a common sight. Later on, as an American vacationing in Europe several times in the 1980s and 1990s, I noticed the everyday precautions against terrorism—the military patrols, the warnings that any package or bag left unattended in a public place would be destroyed, the metal lids screwed on trash cans—and reflected on how different life was in the United States. That's one reflection we no longer have the luxury to make. Have we changed so much that we have lost ourselves?

A recent article in Salon by San Francisco-based writer Gregory Dicum is titled, "This is not America." Dicum, a descendant of immigrants (mostly from the former Soviet Union), worries that this country is headed toward the same kind of oppression his ancestors once fled. Under Soviet rule, the secret police kept files on everyone, and there were "secret denouncements, property seizures, and disappearances." In the United States today, writes Dicum, "under the Patriot Act and sundry new regulations, secret military incarcerations . . . and whispers of torture have become daily news," and the Office of Information Awareness plans to keep information on all Americans in a huge centralized database.

Should we be on guard against sacrificing civil liberties to national security? Yes. But despite the panic-mongering, this is still America, and we still have checks and balances. Journalist Steven Brill, whose book After examines post-Sept. 11 America, notes in a Salon interview that judges and legislators, including Republicans, have curbed some of the excesses of John Ashcroft's Justice Department. Brill believes that the government was guilty of civil rights violations in the case of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh; but he also points out the legal system ultimately worked and Lindh was not convicted on the charges of which Ashcroft publicly proclaimed him guilty (such as conspiring to kill Americans).

Measures such as limiting terror suspects' communications with their lawyers in order to prevent potential terrorist acts are controversial, and rightly so. But they are a far cry from Stalinism.

Some worry that the war on terror, and now the war in Iraq, have made America an inhospitable place for freedom of speech. Again, the concern is not unfounded. Some on the right have come uncomfortably close to equating dissent with treason, suggesting that to criticize the war once the shooting has started is unpatriotic. In one troubling incident, 61-year-old Stephen Downs, who committed the crime of wearing a "Give Peace a Chance" T-shirt in a shopping mall in Albany, N.Y., was arrested for trespassing after he refused a security guard's demand to take off the shirt or leave.

Yet the arrest sparked widespread outrage. Downs had his 15 minutes of fame on talk shows as a free-speech hero—even Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, far from sympathetic to antiwar protests, took his side—and the mall's owners, clearly embarrassed by the publicity, dropped the trespassing charge.

It is also worth noting that antiwar demonstrations have proceeded freely in cities across America, even if some have questioned the protesters' patriotism. While opponents of the war have the right to protest, others have the right to criticize them. The angry fans who trashed the Dixie Chicks' CDs because lead singer Natalie Maines declared that she was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas" are not Nazi book-burners. The Chicks' albums, by the way, are still selling quite well.

If tolerance in time of crisis is a measure of America, we are probably more American than ever. The Civil War led to the suspension of basic civil liberties. During World War I—when we had not been attacked on our soil—Congress passed repressive laws under which thousands of war critics were jailed or deported. World War II brought about the internment of Japanese-Americans; the Cold War, the abuses of McCarthyism.

Yes, this is a different America than it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But it wasn't Ashcroft, President Bush, or the Republican Congress who conspired to rob us of our freedom; it was the terrorists. And while we feel less safe and less free than we did before, the terrorists haven't won.