A Dark Decade for Civil Rights and Liberties, by Kanya d’Almeida

A Dark Decade for Civil Rights and Liberties

by Kanya D’Almeida     Nation of Change

Saturday 10 September 2011

The U.S. has a long history of responding to national trauma by restricting rights and ladling out unchecked power to the executive during times of crisis – a pattern that is clearly marked out by the government’s clampdown on individual rights and liberties during the Civil War, the Cold War and World War II.

The tenth an­niver­sary of the at­tacks on the World Trade Cen­ter’s Twin Tow­ers and the Pen­ta­gon on Sep. 11, 2001 is marked by mourn­ing.

With ral­lies planned across the coun­try, largely con­cen­trated at the sites of the twin tragedies in Wash­ing­ton D.C. and Lower Man­hat­tan in New York City, vic­tims’ fam­ily mem­bers and politi­cians will gather on Sun­day to share a solemn mo­ment for those who were killed and maimed on that fate­ful day.

But an­other group of mourn­ers are mak­ing them­selves heard this year, lament­ing more than just civil­ian deaths.

Led by civil rights and ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU), the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tional Rights (CCR) and the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, this group is mark­ing the demise of pre-9/11 democ­racy in the U.S., using the aus­pi­cious day to de­mand restora­tion of basic human and civil rights.  

“We are using this mo­ment to take a step back and ask big, broad ques­tions about how and why the U.S. con­tin­ues to de­fine it­self in a state of per­pet­ual emer­gency, how we seem to be mov­ing to­wards a na­tional se­cu­rity state, rather than re­turn­ing to a proper bal­ance be­tween lib­erty and se­cu­rity,” Ben Wiz­ner, lit­i­ga­tion di­rec­tor of the ACLU’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Pro­ject and co-au­thor of the union’s newly- minted re­port “A Call to Courage“, told IPS.

Wiz­ner ac­knowl­edged that the U.S. has a long his­tory of re­spond­ing to na­tional trauma by re­strict­ing rights and ladling out unchecked power to the ex­ec­u­tive dur­ing times of cri­sis – a pat­tern that is clearly marked out by the gov­ern­ment’s clam­p­down on in­di­vid­ual rights and lib­er­ties dur­ing the Civil War, the Cold War and World War II, he said.

“But part of that pattern has al­ways en­tailed re­al­iz­ing our mis­takes, ad­mit­ting when we went too far, and at­tempt­ing to re­gain some sort of bal­ance in civil so­ci­ety,” Wiz­ner said, adding that in the decade since 9/11, the op­po­site has been true.

“The dan­ger of defin­ing a war as being against ‘ter­ror­ism’ is that it takes place every­where and may last for­ever, the war it­self be­comes an ab­strac­tion rather than a re­al­ity, and there is no end in sight,” he said.

“After the mas­sive se­cu­rity re­sponse to 9/11, we all thought the pen­du­lum would swing back, but it ap­pears to be going in the same di­rec­tion. De­spite the fear-mon­ger­ing, we haven’t seen mas­sive fol­low-up at­tacks in the U.S., the po­lit­i­cal de­bate is the same as it was 10 years ago, more and more power is being chan­neled to the ex­ec­u­tive and to law en­force­ment and there has been in­creased au­tho­riza­tion of il­le­gal de­ten­tions with­out charge or trial and to the use of lethal force away from tra­di­tional bat­tle­fields,” he con­cluded.

Ac­cord­ing to the CCR, the decade since 9/11 has been used to “shred the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, tram­ple on the Bill of Rights, dis­card the Geneva Con­ven­tions, and heap scorn on the do­mes­tic tor­ture statute and the U.N. Con­ven­tion Against Tor­ture and Other Cruel, In­hu­man or De­grad­ing Treat­ment or Pun­ish­ment.”

Haul­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama into the spot­light for fail­ing to de­liver on any of his 9/11-re­lated promises, the CCR claimed that Obama “has failed to shut down Guantánamo and to hold the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­count­able for its war crimes, in­clud­ing tor­ture; (has al­lowed) war in Afghanistan to rage on with no sign of ter­mi­na­tion; and has per­pet­u­ated the prac­tice of ren­di­tion to third coun­tries for in­ter­ro­ga­tion and in­def­i­nite de­ten­tion, when mon­i­tor­ing and ‘diplo­matic as­sur­ances’ can­not pre­vent against tor­ture.”

To com­mem­o­rate the an­niver­sary, the CCR com­piled a data­base of its own clients who have suf­fered from the cli­mate of im­punity and il­le­gal­ity that has reigned for 10 years, in­clud­ing tes­ti­mony from Maher Arar, a Cana­dian cit­i­zen who was tor­tured for a full year in Syria; 17-year-old Mo­hammed Khan Tu­mani, one of the orig­i­nal 22 mi­nors to be de­tained and se­verely abused in Guan­tanamo Bay; and Be­na­mar Be­natta, who spent a total of five years in de­ten­tion and is cur­rently a plain­tiff in a class-ac­tion law­suit against for­mer at­tor­ney-gen­eral John Ashcroft.

Be­natta’s tes­ti­mony reads, “(While) in de­ten­tion, I was un­aware of how far the hor­rors of 9/11 had changed our world. We have let fear and ha­tred get the best of us.”

As se­cu­rity tight­ens around New York and Wash­ing­ton on the eve of the week­end an­niver­sary, a press­ing con­cern on the radar of count­less civil rights ad­vo­cates has been the im­pinge­ment of the state sur­veil­lance ap­pa­ra­tus onto per­sonal pri­vacy.

re­cent re­port by the As­so­ci­ated Press that ex­posed the close work­ing ties be­tween the New York City Po­lice De­part­ment (NYPD) and the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency (CIA) drew at­ten­tion to some of the de­struc­tive ef­fects of coun­tert­er­ror­ism on local com­mu­ni­ties, par­tic­u­larly the CIA’s prac­tice of de­ploy­ing “au­then­tic” spies into local com­mu­ni­ties for in­for­ma­tion-gath­er­ing pur­poses.

Ac­cord­ing to the AP re­port’s au­thors, “the NYPD [cur­rently] op­er­ates far out­side its bor­ders and tar­gets eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties in ways that would run afoul of civil lib­er­ties rules if prac­ticed by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment… and it does so with un­prece­dented help from the CIA in a part­ner­ship that has blurred the bright line be­tween for­eign and do­mes­tic spy­ing.”

Faiza Patel, co-di­rec­tor of the Lib­erty and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Pro­gram at the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, wrote last week, “The pri­vacy of our homes and our com­mu­ni­ca­tions has been eroded by a range of new mea­sures. These in­clude se­cret ‘sneak and peek’ war­rants that allow the gov­ern­ment to search your home with­out telling you about it until months later and na­tional se­cu­rity let­ters that com­pel banks and In­ter­net ser­vice providers to se­cretly re­veal your per­sonal in­for­ma­tion.”

Crit­ics say that far from mak­ing the coun­try safer, these pro­grams and poli­cies have ac­tu­ally made the U.S. more vul­ner­a­ble, both in its image over­seas and, more im­por­tantly, on a do­mes­tic level.

Ac­cord­ing to Heidi Beirich, re­search di­rec­tor of the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, the post-9/11 cli­mate has seen a rise in hate groups across the coun­try, pos­si­bly one of the most wor­ri­some man­i­fes­ta­tions of a pop­u­la­tion’s in­se­cu­rity.

“There were no spe­cific anti-Is­lamic hate groups be­fore 9/11,” Beirich told IPS.

“Now there are groups solely de­voted to anti-Mus­lim ha­tred, in­clud­ing groups such as Pam Geller’s ‘Stop Is­lamiza­tion of Amer­ica’,” she added, ref­er­enc­ing a group no­to­ri­ous for its Mus­lim-bash­ing that is plan­ning what will un­doubt­edly be a highly racially charged rally in New York this Sun­day.

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