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Politics as Usual: Like it or not, the ACLU is protecting your rights

September 20, 2011

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is a fitting time for poignant memorials and sympathetic reminiscences. It is also a time for flag-waving patriotism and “never again” steadfastness and vigilance. All those things have their place.
But it is also a fitting time for a clear-eyed look back to where we have come since that day and how we have gotten here, a sober reassessment of our behavior in response to that horror.
The Rhode Island ACLU has given us that with an excellent report titled “The Legacy of the Indefinite ‘War on Terror’ in Rhode Island: Civil Liberties in the Aftermath of 9/11.”
The full report is at and is well worth reading.
While the report emphasizes, as one would expect, the encroachments on civil liberties after the terror attacks, it also points out some instances where the state, cities and towns and individuals also stepped up and stood up against the trend of limiting people’s rights in the name of security that wrapped itself up in the red, white and blue flag of patriotism.
The Orwellian twisting of the concept of patriotism was made manifest shortly after 9/11 when the Congress whooshed into law the so-called USA PATRIOT Act without even reading it, let alone considering its short-circuiting of our basic liberties.
In one of the speeches he gave on Sept. 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush said, “freedom itself was attacked this morning.” That was not accurate. America was attacked by terrorists that day. Freedom itself was attacked almost immediately afterward when Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, started ginning up things like the USA PATRIOT Act.
The most chilling sentence in the 25-page document asserts: “Unfortunately, the security state created by the Patriot Act has, as some commentators have noted, become the new normal.”
I asked ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown if that “new normal” is indeed here to stay.
“I am very concerned, I think in some respects there is a new normal in terms of living in a surveillance society. We have just gone so far down that road; I’m not sure if or when we would be able to turn it back. On the other hand, I think ultimately there is an opportunity for people to rein in some of the broader excesses, but only if people are aware that it should be a balance that one doesn’t necessarily have to sacrifice one’s basic freedoms in order to maintain security.”
That is the gist of the report’s conclusion: “We can be both safe and free. A healthy respect for our Constitution and a commitment to the rule of law it embodies, and a deep recognition of the importance of our civil liberties even in times of crisis are the best responses to violence and to those who advocate it.”
Amen to that.
Brown adds that, “It’s hard to get a good grasp of just how extensive the surveillance society is. We get little bits and pieces that certainly suggest the prevalence and scope of it, but, along with the surveillance society, we have this rise of state secrets that keeps us from knowing for sure just how widespread it is.”
It is important that we keep that kind of balancing perspective in mind as police in New York City and in the nation’s capital are pulling cars and trucks off the road at “security” checkpoints based on what they acknowledge is an unconfirmed report that terrorists may be plotting something in one of those two cities.
I wanted to underline the concerns of the ACLU on this 9/11 anniversary precisely because the organization takes so much crap from ignoramuses who don’t understand that it is fighting for them and their liberty. The same yahoos who pay such lip service to the idea of the U.S. Constitution get all irate when the ACLU tries to enforce what it actually says.
Just like newspapers at first, and now a plethora of different media including television and radio stations, blogs, news websites and even to an extent You Tube, took on the responsibility of being the watchdog of government, the ACLU has taken upon itself the responsibility of being the check and balance on the tyranny of the majority.
They stand in front of the government, and the mob (by that I mean the masses, not the Mob as in Tony Soprano) and they say STOP! They force officialdom and society to respect the rights of the individual, even (or maybe particularly) when that individual is unpopular or outright despised.
That was the whole idea of having a constitution that limits the power of government, so that the rights of the minority, even a minority of one, are not steamrolled by popular opinion or the will of the majority. And the whole idea of the ACLU is to make sure we live by that. They use the power of one branch of the government – the courts – to keep the other two branches in line.
They are quintessentially American. If John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were alive today, they would belong to the ACLU.
Are they wrong or even wrongheaded at times? Of course they are. But even in cases where they are dead wrong, it is a good thing that they are there to make us at least consider their point of view, even if ultimately we reject it.
So, even if they complain about crèches at Christmas or make you take down a banner that has hung in a high school for years or call out police departments for racial profiling, they deserve respect for standing up for the rights of the individual when no one else will.
Like cops and lawyers, it is easy to complain about the ACLU until the time comes when you need them.

Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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