Nadine and Me

Why I became a card-carrying member of the ACLU


The American Civil Liberties Union has sent me quantities of junk mail soliciting me to join for years. No doubt they picked my name from the mailing lists of a lot of left-leaning publications to which I subscribe—after all you've got to know what the other guys are up to. I often think of reading The Nation or The American Prospect as opposition research. And just as surely as those ACLU missives arrived, they were chucked into my garbage can.

Now, it's not as though I am not sympathetic to a lot of what the ACLU is doing. I am strongly in favor of its activities in defense of free speech, its efforts to maintain the proper separation of church and state, and the like.

But I've been less sanguine about its stands on things like private freedom of association and the death penalty. I agree with the ACLU that it is wrong for the Boy Scouts to exclude gays, but I also don't think it's the government's business to try to force people to put up with one another in voluntary organizations. If you don't like the Boy Scouts' homophobic policy, then don't join and don't contribute. On the other hand, I agree with the ACLU that the government should be neutral with regard to the question of who gets married to whom.

Though reasonable people of good will obviously disagree, my moral intuition tells me, and the moral intuitions of the majority of Americans tell them, that the only suitable punishment for the heinous crime of premeditated murder is death. I hope it goes without saying that the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt before killing someone.

Anyway, when I received another ACLU solicitation last month, I decided to send in my check and sign up. Why now? I still disagree with the ACLU's official positions on the death penalty and freedom of association, so perhaps this column can be regarded as a kind of personal "side letter" similar to those that often accompany treaties in which countries except themselves from provisions they dislike. Nevertheless, the ACLU is oh-so-right on the vital and timely constitutional issues of free speech and protection of people from unreasonable and intrusive government action.

For example, the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia just ruled that the Feds can jail people incognito indefinitely. "The objection to secrecy is that secrecy invites abuse," Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's legal director said to the Washington Post. "And we now know from the Justice Department's own internal report that serious abuses took place." He's right. The Bush Administration has also essentially suspended the writ of habeas corpus, that is, denying detainees access to the courts to contest their arrests as unlawful, by simply asserting that it can declare American citizens "enemy combatants." And, of course, the USA PATRIOT Act has given disturbing new surveillance powers to the FBI that I believe violate the Fourth Amendment's protections against warrantless searches.

Even more egregious were proposals being considered by the U.S. Justice Department in its draft version of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003. The American Conservative Union—not a group generally thought of as a bunch of pantywaist bleeding hearts—highlights civil liberties nightmares in the DSEA. The act would:

? "Allow the government to secretly submit any evidence it wishes to the court without notifying the defendant."

? "Permit, without any connection to anti- terrorism efforts, sensitive personal credit and educational information to be shared with local and state law enforcement."

? "Strip even native born Americans of all of their rights of United States citizenship by inferring intent to relinquish citizenship if they provide support to an organization they may not even know has been labeled a 'terrorist organization.'"

As it turns out I am far from alone in seeing new value in ACLU membership. The organization is moving out of its leftwing ghetto and is attracting a wider spectrum of members. Look people, we are far from living in a police state, but it is time to roll back the encroachments on our liberties that we have already endured. Many Americans are alarmed at what they regard as an erosion of their civil liberties, so it's not surprising that the ACLU's membership is the highest it's ever been, totaling over 400,000 and growing. The ACLU recognizes, as do most Americans, that there is no tradeoff between liberty and security. That's why I agree with the ACLU's slogan "Keep America Safe AND Free" and that's why I'm a card carrying member of the ACLU today.