Archive for Monday, January 13, 2003

Complacency on civil rights

January 13, 2003


War is hell on civil liberties.

And if you don't believe that, the proof is as near as your history book. Or, increasingly, your newspaper.

In the history book, you'll learn how Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus and defied the Supreme Court while prosecuting the Civil War. And how, during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt sent 110,000 Americans of Japanese heritage to internment camps.

In the paper, you'll learn that the Bush administration is holding indefinitely, without filing charges and without giving him access to counsel, an American citizen captured with Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Last week, a federal appeals court gave its approval to the continuing detention of Yaser Esam Hamdi. Still to be settled is the question of whether the same leeway applies to Jose Padilla, an American arrested in America and currently being held under similar conditions.

If these were normal times, I'd be landing on George Bush like a trampoline right now. But normal times ended when the World Trade Center did.

As such, the waters are much muddier than they once were. One might look to history for instruction, but history offers mixed messages. It sees Lincoln's suspension of the Constitution as a necessary evil from a president whose nation was coming apart. But it regards Roosevelt's decision to ignore the same document as shameful and xenophobic.

So is Bush more likely to go down as the reincarnation of Abe or Frank? Is he guilty of necessary evil or future shame?

What's troubling is that most of us don't seem to care one way or another. One senses no groundswell of concern about any of this -- nor, really, anything beyond a gaping ambivalence.

The question does not engage us and that in itself speaks volumes about the way we view the rights accorded us in the Constitution. In normal times, we tend to be amazingly cavalier toward, and ignorant about, these astonishing freedoms we enjoy. And, as has already been established, these times are not normal.

So where civil liberties are concerned, we've written government a blank check. We want security and we're not picky about the cost.

I'm not here to argue that the Bush administration has gone beyond "necessary evil." But based on the lessons of history, it's a question we ought to at least be pondering. Instead, we sit in silence, complacent and complicit, as the government chooses expedience over process. But if the past has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that sometimes expedience is the birthplace of shame. Unfortunately, the lesson seems to have fallen on ears of stone.

Think about it for a moment. I could call the FBI tomorrow and tell them you're involved in terrorist activities, maybe manufacture some evidence against you. And that's it. You're gone. No lawyer, no "one phone call," no Miranda rights, no compulsion for the government to account for your whereabouts or lay out the case against you, no chance to tell your side of the story.

You have been disappeared, as surely as if you lived in North Korea, Cuba or Iraq.

That ought to concern us more than it apparently does.

Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, yes. We are all desperate to feel safe again, yes. But that's precisely why we the people need to be more vigilant and more skeptical of our government. We must pay close attention as corners are cut and rights abridged in our names.

Not from lack of patriotism or need to be blindly adversarial. Rather, because the citizenry of a democratic nation is the most important check on the potential excesses of government. And because it's in a time of emergency that excess is most likely.

Do we care? From all appearances, we do not.

Sadly enough, we seem to have made our choice. We choose expedience.

And let history take care of itself.

-- Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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