On Eve of Sixth-Month Anniversary of September 11th, ACLU Says Terrorist Attacks Have Changed American Law, Society

March 8, 2002 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — As the nation prepares to mark the sixth month anniversary of the attacks on September 11, the American Civil Liberties Union said the terrorist attacks have led to major changes in American law and society.

“”Six months after September 11, much has fundamentally changed in America,”” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. “”Perhaps the most disturbing change is the government’s apparent dismissal of the idea that our society can and must be both safe and free.””

Specifically, the ACLU pointed to what it called an “”ongoing pattern of erosion”” of basic civil liberties in America in the name of unproven security measures. Examples of the cutbacks include the secrecy surrounding the hundreds of Arabs and Muslims still being detained in the investigation, the plan to monitor confidential attorney-client conversations, the selective enforcement of immigration law based on race, ethnicity and country of origin and the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act and the often-unchecked powers it gave law enforcement agencies.

The ACLU expressed particular concern about the new security measures that erode and evade judicial review. “”Checks and balances are the cornerstone of our democracy,”” Romero said. “”The Founders put the judiciary in place to protect our rights, a role they can’t play if Congress explicitly forbids them from even reviewing and law enforcement actions.””

The newly announced expansion and increased funding of the National Neighborhood Watch program are the latest component in this pattern of erosion. The plan announced earlier this week by Attorney General Ashcroft extends the neighborhood watches to include terrorism prevention, a move critics fear could fuel Cold War-style discrimination and censorship.

“”By asking neighborhood groups to report on people who are ‘unfamiliar’ or who act in ways that are ‘suspicious’ or ‘not normal,’ our government is unconstructively fear-mongering, and fueling the already rampant ethnic and religious scapegoating,”” said ACLU President Nadine Strossen.

On a positive note, however, the ACLU praised Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-SD) remarks last week asking for greater congressional involvement in the war effort overseas.

“”While the nation continues to grieve the losses of September 11, we must also begin to fix many of the injuries that have been done to civil liberties since that date,”” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “”In this spirit, we applaud Sen. Daschle’s recent reasonable remarks calling for greater congressional oversight over the war effort.

“”Congress should indeed work together with the President,”” Murphy added, “”to ensure that all our best interests are served, our security assured and our freedom inviolable.””

Since September 11, some national leaders have downplayed the ACLU’s concerns, saying that polls show the American people believe that limitations imposed on civil liberties during wartime are almost always temporary and that we can expect a return to normal conditions once hostilities are ended. But the ACLU said that the war on terrorism, unlike conventional wars, is not likely to come to a public and decisive end. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, for example, recently equated the war on terrorism with the nation’s continuing war on drugs and crime.

“”The civil liberties restrictions that are being put in place are extremely expansive in two ways,”” Strossen said. “”First, most of them apply far beyond the anti-terrorism context, undermining rights of individuals not even suspected of any crime at all, let alone a terrorist crime. And, second, most of these restrictions are unlimited in time.””

That is why the ACLU said Congress and the American people must carefully scrutinize actions that the government is taking — actions that may limit our liberty without adding anything to our safety.

“”We believe that every proposal to restrict liberty should be made to pass a ‘necessary and defensible’ test,”” Romero said. “”We need to ask ourselves if the restriction is necessary, will it, for example, actually increase our security, and is it defensible, will the increased benefit to security outweigh the cost to constitutional guarantees of procedural fairness, free speech and privacy.””

In applying this two-pronged test, the ACLU said that the country should demand answers to several key questions:

  • Does the federal government already have the resources to fight the problem that these new powers are supposed to combat?
  • Is the proposal narrowly tailored to limit the adverse impact on civil liberties?
  • Is the proposal designed to battle terrorism or does it represent a fundamental change in the law that has nothing to do with protecting us from the events of September 11?

    The ACLU’s job, Romero said, is to convince America that it can be safe and free. “”We strongly believe that if we choose the path of advancing both safety and freedom,”” he said, “”the benefits to our constitutional democracy will be universal and ever-growing.””

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