Anthony Romero: In Defense of Liberty at a Time of National Emergency (2002)

Anthony Romero is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Importance of History

            American history reminds us that we have tended to move in the wrong direction in times of national emergency. We can take three valuable lessons from our past:

            1. Conscription of opinion often goes hand in hand with conscription of soldiers. During World War I, soldiers were not the only ones conscripted; public opinion and the First Amendment were also conscripted as the government attempted to squelch free expression and dissent.

            Similar actions were taken during World War II. Sadly, we are seeing similar efforts to conscript the First Amendment in service of the "war against terrorism." ACLU offices across the country have begun receiving complaints of efforts to limit free speech. On the campuses of colleges and universities, we are hearing about efforts to limit academic freedom and quell dissent and debate.

            On October 11, 2001, we saw troubling efforts to conscript public opinion when the White House requested that broadcast media outlets edit or decline to show any videotapes of Osama bin Laden. Apparently, the White House was concerned that the tapes would communicate secret messages or codes to other terrorists living in the United States. No proof of this was provided in the White House request, and in any case, the tapes were broadcast worldwide and were available online. Several weeks later Attorney General John Ashcroft attempted to equate support for civil liberty with aid to terrorists, proclaiming that public debate would "erode our national unity . . . diminish our resolve . . . give ammunition to AmericaÕs enemies, and pause to AmericaÕs friends." More shocking than his statements was the fact that most members of the Senate Judiciary Committee before which he was testifying failed to take issue with such clearly anti-democratic sentiments.

            Our democracy is built squarely on principles of free speech and due process of law. Each and every one of us must speak up in the firm conviction that by so doing, we strengthen our nation. Democracy has many great attributes but it is not a quiet business.

            2. National crises tend to encourage gross violations of due process. Following World War I, strikes in our nationÕs cities terrified millions of Americans who saw law and order collapsing. In 1918, riots broke out, paralyzing the country, and federal troops were called in to restore order in many cities. In June of that year, the country was shaken by a series of politically motivated bombings, including an explosion at the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.

            During raids, law enforcement officials swooped down on suspected radicals in thirty-three cities, arresting thousands of people, most of them immigrants. The raids involved wholesale abuses of the law: arrests without a warrant, unreasonable searches and seizures, wanton destruction of property, physical brutality, and prolonged detention. The Palmer Raids, as they were known, eventually led to the founding of the ACLU by Roger Baldwin and a handful of others.

 Government officials need to reassure us that the Palmer Raids were just a sad chapter in history and that our constitutional protections are in place.

            3. Our national leaders will often exploit popular fear of foreigners during crisis periods. Theodore Roosevelt, during World War I, warned that the "Hun within our gates is the worst of the foes of our own household." His comment reflected the xenophobic sentiment in our country that led to racial profiling and ethnic bashing aimed against Germans, Italians, Jews, and Eastern Europeans.

            But the most traumatic example of this type of national xenophobia took place during World War II, when the government interned more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast.

            These examples explicitly demonstrate why we must resist the temptation to overreact, to rush to judgment. Terror, by its very nature, is intended not only to destroy, but also to intimidate a people, forcing them to take actions that are not in their best interest.

            That's why defending liberty during a time of national emergency is the ultimate act of defiance and patriotism. For if we are intimidated to the point of restricting our freedoms, the terrorists will have won. We should be prepared not only to react, but also to be proactive, offering alternative solutions where feasible.

            A proactive agenda has several components. First, we must think carefully and clearly about the trade-offs between national security and individual freedom, and to understand that some will seek to restrict freedom for ideological and other reasons that have little to do with security. Second, citizens need to stay informed and involved in the current congressional deliberations on anti-terrorism legislation. We must remain vigilant not just in Washington, D.C., but in our state capitals and city councils since elected officials are also attempting to pass new security legislation at the state and local levels.

            Third, we must demand that government take the necessary steps to prevent and punish unwarranted, bigoted attacks on fellow citizens of Arab descent and members of religious minorities, including Muslims and Sikhs because, in the words in 1939 of the ACLU board of directors, "When the rights of any are sacrificed, the rights of none are safe."

            Fourth, we must keep the pressure on other issues. We must not lose the momentum on important struggles like the death penalty or electoral reform. The tide was with us on these and other issues prior to September 11 and we must keep the pressure on. Fifth, we must demand government accountability and responsiveness to civil liberties.

            Finally, we should establish guidelines for evaluating new proposals that would affect our basic civil liberties. At the very least, proposed changes to restrict liberty should be examined and debated in public; they should be proven effective in increasing safety and security, and they should be fairly applied in a nondiscriminatory manner.

         As the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in a 1972 Supreme Court opinion: "This is a country which stands tallest in troubled times, a country that clings to fundamental principles, cherishes its constitutional heritage, and rejects simple solutions that compromise the values that lie at the roots of our democratic system."

Question: How does Romero prove his themes?