In the Beginning
In the dicey spring and summer of 1788, with the fate of the Constitution hanging by a thread and this land engulfed in bitter political feuding between Federalists and anti-Federalists, the anti-Federalist “Brutus” published a series of letters in the New York Journal. In his fifteenth letter to the paper, dated 20 March 1788, Brutus warned that the Constitution granted tothe proposed federal government powers so vast that it would eventually “melt down the states into one entire government.” Brutus suggested that this eradication of the states was, in fact, the intention of the Federalists. He argued that they, having “employed their talents and abilities with such success to influence the public mind to adopt this plan,” would surely “employ the same to persuade the people . . . to abolish the state governments as useless and burdensome,” thus concentrating all power in a central government. Like many of his fellow anti-Federalists, Brutus was convinced that the Constitution was a device intended not only to dissolve the states but to “subvert American liberties” in the process.
Brutus and his fellow lovers of liberty thus rejoiced when the Bill of Rights was approved in 1791, enshrining the modern concept of civil liberties. The Bill of Rights notwithstanding, seven years later, in 1798, President John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. Ostensibly passed to confront the national security threats posed by French revolutionaries, the Acts suspended the rights of free speech, due process, and probable cause. French immigrants were so terrified by the threat of imprisonment by overzealous constables that they fled the nation by the boatload, preferring to take their chances in violence-wracked post-Revolutionary France ratherthan in the supposedly democratic United States! The Acts were thought to be so tyrannical that opposition newspapers – before their presses were burned and their publishers arrested – portrayed Adams as a would-be King. Benny Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, became famous for calling Adams “His Royal Rotundity”. For this piece of sarcasm Bache was arrested, anddied awaiting trial. Luckily for all of us, Thomas Jefferson won the presidential election in 1800 and restored the nation to the democratic principles for which a generation of Americans had risked life and limb.
The Return of the Federalists
Now, my friends, despite all of the political rhetoric about shrinking the size of the federal government and our Chief Executive’s paramountlove of freedom, tremble before the return of Adams! Recoil before the ghost of McCarthy! Like the night of the living dead, mark the ascent of the new Federalists! For President Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, like Adams’s response to the French threat back in 1798, has been to trample the Constitution. Indeed, hundreds of civilians remain in detention as part of the FBI’s dragnet search for domestic terrorists. Many of them still have not been charged with any crime, meaning that in the name of national defense the FBI is violating the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of “probable cause,” the Fifth Amendment’s protection of “due process of law,” the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of “the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury,” and, in some cases, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
This trampling of civil liberties, including the threat to put to death those convicted of terrorism, is considered so shameful in Europe that France, Britain, Spain, and Germany, each of which has captured suspected terrorists, have refused to extradite their suspects to the US for fear that our courts are now incapable of providing anything resembling justice. Here is but one example of how violating our most cherished national principles actually hinders our pursuit of safety and justice.
The First Amendment has also come under intense pressure. In the weeks following the attacks, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned that “all Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do,” thus making it clear that free speech is no longer so free in a time of what the government may define as ‘war’. Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General John Ashcroft argued that those who dare criticize the government “only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.” And the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (the best-known members of which are Lynn Cheney, the Vice-President’s wife, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore’s vice-presidential running mate) has released a report charging academics who question either the causes of the war or the means of its administration with undermining the nation’s moral resolve.
In each of these cases the First Amendment’s protection of free speech has been either threatened or trampled outright. But as history has shown us time and time again, you cannot trade civil liberties for safety; outlawing free speech will not make us secure.
On Wednesday, 30 January, over 200 people assembled to discuss these threats to free speech in the University of Illinois Levis Faculty Center. Hosted by Stephen Hartnett of the Illinois Teachers for Peace and Justice, the evening featured fiery speeches by Edwin Yohnka, Director of Communications for the Illinois ACLU; Francis Boyle, an internationally recognized UI Law Professor; Maaria Mozaffar, President of the UIUC Muslim Law Student Association; and Bruce Williams, Research Professor at the UI Institute for Communication Research.
All four speakers urged the audience to stand strong in the face of Bush and the New Federalists’ assault on civil liberties. Edwin Yohnka posited that the PATRIOT Act was enacted so quickly following 9/11 that he suspected it may have been a piece of legislation awaiting an opportune moment for implementation.
Professor Boyle emphasized that the PATRIOT Act poses a dire threat to civil liberties, and that by utilizing military tribunals to circumvent the normal rules of evidence required by federal courts, Bush and Ashcroft were undermining the legitimacy of the US court system. Furthermore, Boyle asserted, by granting the CIA new powers to do domestic “security” work the act creates new means of internal surveillance. By drastically liberalizing wire-tap laws and reinstating COINTELPRO-like files, he explained, the act comprises a dramatic first step toward the construction of a police state.
Maaria Mozaffar noted that the FBI’s dragnet searches for “terrorists” amount to gross racial profiling, for “if you are looking for an Arab American or Muslim American who does not agree with US foreign policy, you will find him.” Mozaffar thus argued that the war on terrorism would serve as justification for increased surveillance of immigrant communities.
Finally, Bruce Williams discussed the PATRIOT Act’s impact on access to information on the web. In a remarkable critique of the massmedia, Williams observed that in his research with fringe political groups on the web, he found that they exhibited “a pattern of much more diverse and civil debate than was the norm” in commercial mainstream outlets.
Audience members followed these four presentations with questions about the PATRIOT Act, as well as statements of defiance. Over a dozen anti-war events were announced, demonstrating that Champaign-Urbana remains a hotbed of activism for defending civil liberties and fighting for social justice. Indeed, while mourning for those lost in the attacks of September 11, everyone present seemed to agree that destroying democracy in the name of national security would be a shameful, cowardly response to our new threat.
The evening thus proved once again, as has always been the case in American history, that the robust exercise of civil liberties is not an impediment to national security, but rather the surest and noblest way to honor our obligations to democracy, making the nation stronger, safer, and more just.
The next meeting of the Teachers for Peace and Justice will be held on Tuesday, March 26, 8 p.m. at the Levis Faculty Center. The topic will be International Terrorism.