To quote Thomas Paine, author of the Revolutionary War pamphlets The American Crisis and Common Sense, "These are the times that try men's souls."
The freedoms we hold dear are under attack &emdash; and I'm not talking about by Al-Qaeda. I'm talking about by the Bush administration and Congress.
In the year since 19 terrorists hijacked four planes and flew three into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, as America mourned the 3,000 or so who died and fretted over the dangers of what many perceive as a drastically different world, the Bush administration has moved to consolidate federal power, enhancing the authority of law enforcement while removing much of what it has done or plans to do from judicial oversight.
The short list is fairly compelling:
It has placed at least two Americans under indefinite detention without charges or attorneys, claiming that they worked with the al-Qaeda terror network and therefore forfeited the constitutional protections the rest of us enjoy.
It has rounded up and kept secret the names of hundreds of foreign-born individuals, most without charges or access to legal representations, in what has called "preventative detention," essentially replaying our detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In conjunction, it has closed hearings in what the nation's chief immigration judge has called "special interest" immigration cases and closed off access to the federal courts for aliens who wish to challenge this secrecy. (A federal judge has ruled that the administration has to release the names, but the administration plans to challenge the order.)
Congress, under cover of night and with the full support of the Bush administration, passed the USA PATRIOT Act, a bill that twists the assumptions contained in the Bill of Rights, unleashing law enforcement authorities to ignore issues of privacy and due process by legalizing roving wiretaps and covert searches and to target dissent through its broad definition of terrorism.
The Bill of Rights, of course, is supposed to guarantee us the right to speak freely and to assemble and seek "a redress of grievances." It is supposed to protect us from unreasonable searches and seizures by police, without "probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." And it is supposed to require that those arrested and accused of crimes be guaranteed due process of law, an attorney and the right to confront their accusers.
Attorney General John Ashcroft and his supporters &emdash; and the majority of Americans, according to the poll numbers &emdash; say we have to be willing to relinquish some of our freedoms temporarily to ensure our safety and security in this time of war.
Not everyone agrees. Judge Gladys Kessler of Federal District Court in Washington pointedly criticized the administration, saying, "secret arrests are a concept odious to a democratic society." She wrote that "the public's interest in learning the identity of those arrested and detained is essential to verifying whether the government is operating within the bounds of law."
Not according to the Justice Department, which says the judicial branch has little right to intervene in the conduct of war. And most Americans seem to support the Justice Department and the Bush administration, according to a Washington Post poll.
It is easy to see why people might feel this way. Fear is a powerful emotion and most people believe that limitations on constitutionals rights will have no effect on them, that only people with something to hide require the right to hide it.
But it's important to remember that these constitutional protections are the bedrock of our freedoms and that chipping away at them for safety's sake can have drastic consequences for all of us down the road.
The fact is, we cannot be secure unless we maintain our freedoms. The political philosopher Sidney Hook, in a 1940 essay called "Bread and Freedom," took to task those who would trade freedom for security &emdash; in his case, economic security.
"How can there be genuine security so long as arbitrary power, whether it be of an employer or a group, or especially of the state as employer, is not subject to the restraints of a freely operating democratic process?"
Hook's essay was written in response to American communists, who were preaching that "bourgeois freedoms" were secondary and could be sacrificed to ensure that the proletariat achieves economic sufficiency. Being free to speak one's mind, to worship as one wished, to be free in one's house thought to be less important than put food on the table or finding food and shelter.
Hook explained the danger of the tradeoff, saying that the only way to maintain freedom and security was to ensure that our core freedoms remain intact. These core freedoms &emdash; of speech and assembly, of inquiry and teaching, of press and other forms of communication, of cultural opportunity and development &emdash; are "what we should primarily mean by the American way of life," he wrote.
"For these are the strategic freedoms that enable us to win new freedoms and check the excesses of the old," he wrote. "So long as they prevail, modifications of and restrictions on other freedoms are reversible. Where they are undermined, no other freedom can be anything but an assertion of power by a privileged group."
And it's important to note that what we are calling a temporary tradeoff is likely to have a much longer shelf life than any of us realize today. The fact is, we are involved in a war against a "shadowy network of adversaries rather than a nation state," one that is likely to have no end, writes Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank. Because of this, he says, it is likely that this tradeoff will become permanent, as well.
"We therefore need to ask whether we want to give not only the current president but also his unknown successors in the decades to come the awesome power that President Bush has claimed," he wrote.
Allowing the national security state to grow unchecked is dangerous and potentially could alter the face of our nation, changing it from the democratic republic we have known into something very different.
That's not something we should pin on the 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11.
Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.