Archive for Saturday, January 7, 2006

Fear shouldn’t be allowed to kill freedom

January 7, 2006


Another president, perhaps.

Maybe then it would be easier to look the other way, give a tacit nod to the abrogation of constitutional freedoms as a wartime necessity. After all, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War and history does not begrudge him for it, given that he faced an enemy amassed almost literally within sight of the White House.

But this is not President Lincoln we're talking about. It's not even President Franklin Roosevelt, succumbing to post-Pearl Harbor hysteria and interning thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry.

No, we're talking about President Bush - King George, if you will - and last month's New York Times bombshell that a few months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on phone calls and e-mails of hundreds if not thousands of U.S. citizens.

Which happens to be against the law, and a good law at that. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was written after revelations that the government spied on and used dirty tricks against civil rights activists and war protesters who had done nothing more sinister than exercise their constitutional right of dissent. Before it can bug any American suspected of international crimes or conspiracies, the government must, under the FISA, first obtain a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in closed session.

With the proverbial stroke of a pen, Bush has obliterated that protection. If the government believes you have a terrorist connection, it is now empowered to snoop on your international phone calls or e-mails without court approval. King George and his enablers argue that this is necessary to give investigators the agility they need to pursue terrorists.

It is a seductive argument. One is appalled to imagine the Statue of Liberty blown to smithereens while those who might have saved it are dithering over legal papers.

So yeah, another president and you might almost buy it. But this is the same president who has, over the last five years, repeatedly demonstrated utter disregard for the rights, freedoms and basic intelligence of the people he serves. Moreover, he's the one who last year promised an audience in Buffalo that "nothing has changed" with regard to government surveillance of citizens. "When we're talking about chasing down terrorists," he said, "we're talking about getting a court order before we do so."

We know now what he knew then: This was a lie.

Want to guess how long it takes to get a warrant to eavesdrop? It can be done in hours. Even minutes. In extraordinary circumstances, investigators can listen in for up to 72 hours "without" a warrant. You know how many warrant requests were submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Court last year? According to The Times, 1,754. Know how many were rejected? None.

So agility is not the issue here. The drift of presidency toward dictatorship is.

Maybe you figure it has nothing to do with law-abiding you and if "those people" weren't up to something nefarious, the feds wouldn't be investigating them. Of course, one might argue that it's foolish to impute infallibility to a government that sometimes sends Social Security checks to dead cats.

Still, it's not hard to understand the urge to look the other way. Because with all due respect to the threat terrorists pose, Franklin Roosevelt was right. Fear itself is still the first enemy. When people are scared, they don't think, they don't reason and they want nothing so desperately as to just stop being scared. So often, they'll go along with anything that holds out that promise. Even if it means allowing the rights our forebears won from Britain's King George III to be denuded by America's King George I.

Still, we should be ashamed.

Freedom deserves a better epitaph than fear.

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.