by Danny Goldberg
Compared to those directly affected by the thousands of deaths on September
11, my family is lucky. We are lucky that although for weeks after the
World Trade Center attack our Greenwich Village neighborhood smelled
of acrid smoke when the wind blew north, we never had to abandon our
home like our friends who lived further downtown in neighborhoods like
TriBeCa. We are lucky that members of our family did not work in the
World Trade Center--unlike the several people we know who died there.
We are lucky, but as I write this in June 2002, my kids still draw
pictures of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, we still have
the cheap plastic smoke masks that were suddenly on sale from street-corner
vendors last fall, and from time to time my wife and I still wonder
if New York City, the place in which we feel most at home, is really
the right place to live.
I do not begrudge anyone their concerns about personal security.
But it's one thing to have passing emotions, fears, anger, and frustration,
and entirely another to act on them without the filters of logic and
history. Even more dangerous are government policies based on those
emotions. Irrational emotions in the immediate aftermath of September
11 led a few misguided Americans to harass and in some instances brutalize
non-Muslim brown-skinned immigrants such as Hindus and Sikhs, and to
ostracize foreign-born Muslims who have no connection to or sympathy
for terrorism, simply because of their religious beliefs. Acting on
unfiltered emotions rather than balancing them with rationality has
led to many of history's worst evils. This book is an attempt to create
a rational and moral context in a difficult time.
The term "civil liberties" seems lacking in emotional reality,
yet it represents civilization as Americans have come to cherish it,
the balance that adds up to freedom as we know it.
Civil liberties transcend traditional left/right divisions. Because
we wanted to get this collection out in time for the first anniversary
of September 11, and because Victor Goldberg, Robert Greenwald, and
I have spent our political lives most often on the left, there are a
disproportionate number of lefties in this collection. We have tried
to be vigilant in limiting their focus to civil liberties issues, but
the after-effects of September 11 are so profound that some of our authors,
especially those with an artistic bent such as Ani DiFranco and Michael
Moore, took the civil liberties theme and migrated to a wider range
of opinions that may offend some conservatives and pure civil libertarians.
On the other hand, many of our friends on the left may be appalled that
we included a conservative like Bill Clinton's nemesis, Representative
Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia.
Readers will also note that this volume includes a fair amount of repetition
of key historical and legislative information pertaining to civil liberties
in America; given that much of this information has not been widely
reported in our history books or by today's news media, this repetition
There are a thousand gradations of the trade-offs between security
and freedom, and it is a big lie to pretend that there are two, and
only two, choices. There are very few people who would consent to a
law requiring everyone to walk through airport security devices in the
nude, and there is almost no one who objects to walking through those
same devices with their clothes on.
Even people who say they believe in torture to get information do not
necessarily believe in the psychotic torture practiced by the worst
governments. And even the most militant civil libertarian advocate of
the broadest interpretation of the Bill of Rights believes that murderers
should be arrested and prosecuted, and, if convicted, punished.
The issues discussed in this book are not bumper-sticker issues. But
neither are they obscure. There is nothing obscure about being detained
for weeks unable to talk to your family, or being fired from your job
because of your political opinions. Meanwhile, there is no evidence
that civil liberties protections helped cause the September 11 attack,
nor any evidence that legislation, such as the more draconian aspects
of the Patriot Act, would have helped prevent it.
The following are some security-enhancing measures that do not infringe
upon civil liberties:
Prosecute people suspected of crimes under pre–Patriot Act
law, which allows search warrants, surveillance (including wiretaps
as long as a judge sees probable cause), arrests, limitations on bail
(if the suspect can be proved dangerous), jail time up to life imprisonment,
etc. These very tools have already created a prison population greater
than any democratic nation in history.
Hire more police officers and give them special training to deal
Institute higher pay for security workers of all kinds. Since private
business cannot generally afford this, such a plan would require government
spending funded through--yes--taxes. The same polls that show people
will give up "some" rights for security also show they will
give up "some" taxes. More and better-paid security personnel,
not only at airports but at train stations, on buses, in movie theaters,
etc., would make us more safe.
Guard our borders with more soldiers, especially our porous northern
border. Again, this is an economic issue, not a civil liberties issue,
but surely it is better to know who is coming into the country.
The fact is, there are people in our body politic, and I think John
Ashcroft is among them, who have always wanted more government authority
and less personal freedom for ideological reasons having nothing to
do with September 11. Such people have long advocated greater government
and police powers and less personal freedom for Americans.
There has been no answer to Congressman Jerrold Nadler's haunting question
on the floor of Congress during the debate on the Patriot Act: "If
the sole purpose of the new powers granted to the FBI and other police
agencies is to protect against terrorism . . . why weren't these powers
limited to investigation of terrorism?"
I found a metaphor that spoke loudly to me in an article in the New
York Times on February 27, 2002, about the official response in New
Jersey to the 1999 murder of several high school students in Columbine,
Colorado. Like the events of September 11, the school shooting and several
others that preceded it created an understandable anxiety among parents
and school officials, and government policies were changed to reduce
the likelihood of such awful attacks occurring again. As a parent of
school-age kids, I can easily relate to such concerns.
In this climate, many government and school officials who had long
advocated clamp-downs on "difficult" kids were able to implement
excessive policies that went far beyond protecting schools from violence.
Instead of focusing solely on violent kids, such officials broadened
their mandate to target all sorts of nonconformists, based on the kids'
clothes, unorthodox political or religious views, or just smart-ass
attitudes. The problem with clamping down on all smart-asses is that
many of history's greatest figures were, as we know, at one time labeled
One story that attracted my attention was about a fifteen-year-old
boy named Michael Mallner from Livingston, New Jersey. In 1998, Michael
and another boy were caught on a Saturday with a supposedly explosive
device. The bomb squad was summoned. TV crews surrounded his house.
Cops removed a computer from his room.
Prosecutors themselves later acknowledged that the boys weren't out
to hurt anyone. The so-called bomb was a collection of relatively harmless
objects, including M&Ms.
Instead of typical punishment--suspension, community service, probation--Michael
was subject to onerous post-Columbine "zero tolerance" regulations.
He spent six weeks at a juvenile center in Newark where he was attacked
by other kids. He was expelled from school and a year later is still
under house arrest, unable to go out except with permission from a parole
agent, and then only with a parent. Michael wasn't able to attend his
sister's bat mitzvah because he couldn't get approval in time--family
outings are often denied. Michael is not allowed to use the Internet.
"If this had occurred ten years ago, none of this would have happened.
The authorities can't see the difference between showing off, testing
the boundaries--and killing people," Michael's dad Anton Mallner
told the New York Times. As I read the story I reflected on my own teenage
years during which I and many of my friends did things just as bad.
What would our lives be like today if we'd been subjected to such draconian
What does any of this have to do with September 11? It demonstrates
how genuine tragedy and danger can sometimes bring out unfair and irrational
behavior from authorities. The threat of future terrorism is a thousand
times scarier than that of future Columbines, and so is the possibility
of overreaction-or idiotic reaction-in place of, or alongside
genuinely needed enhanced security measures.
One of the encouraging aspects of American society in 2002 is the degree
to which public opinion has internalized many civil liberties principals
that only a few decades ago were considered esoteric. We want criminals
arrested and punished but we believe that those accused of crimes have
the right to remain silent, and have the right to an attorney. So far
the public, and thus the government, have been much more cautious in
infringing on individuals than during previous conflicts. This is cold
comfort if you're a family member of the two thousand detainees. To
sit in a jail cell without knowing what you're charged with, cut off
from your family, unable to work, unsure of your future, is a Kafkaesque
But government reaction has been nowhere near as bad as the Palmer
Raids or Japanese internment or blacklisting/McCarthyism. Unfortunately,
in this regard, Ashcroft's recent directive to "register"
(i.e., fingerprint and photograph) 100,000 Middle Eastern men threatens
to bring about a major historical setback. Ideas can seem flimsy and
insubstantial when confronted with the pragmatic deadline of elections,
or the power of armies or police, but ideas drive politics both in our
country and around the world. The decades of steady, lonely work by
civil libertarians, especially since the blacklisting years, has paid
off in the currency of today's debate. Questions are asked about how
we treat unpopular residents and citizens and those suspected of crimes
that were not asked of those in authority in epochs past.
Let us do our part to further strengthen this vision of democracy that
includes the rights for our worst enemies that we wish for ourselves.
Danny Goldberg is Chairman of Artemis Records, an independent company
with an artist roster that includes Steve Earle, Rickie Lee Jones, Warren
Zevon, Boston, Kittie, and Khia. A longtime political activist, Goldberg
is on the Board and Executive Committee of the NYCLU, and is President
of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. He has written for The
Nation, The American Prospect, Los Angeles Times, and Tikkun, for which
he served as co-Publisher along with his father Victor.
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