At a panel discussion held two weeks ago at the University of Arizona law school, representatives from Derechos Humanos, the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the William E. Morris Institute of Justice, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the UA Young Socialists gathered to inform their audience on how the Patriot Act, ostensibly crafted to "Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism," turns the Constitution on its ear and reduces the Bill of Rights to a historic anachronism.
Isabel Garcia, the Pima County Legal Defender for nine years and a member of Derechos Humanos, opened the discussion with a rejoinder to Attorney General John Ashcroft. "Ashcroft and gang would have us all believe that we're subversives. We are the true Americans. We are the patriots. We are willing to stand up and defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights." One of the organizations at the forefront of that defense is the ACLU.
Jean Braucher, the president of the ACLU's Arizona wing, noted that some of the provisions of the Patriot Act, passed with no Senate committee process, are not restricted to terrorists.
The act gives the intelligence arm of the federal government expanded powers to collect private information from a variety of sources without the necessity of judicial oversight. For example, if the FBI wants to access Internet records, all that is required is a certification that the search is required because it is "relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation." No probable cause is needed, and the judge must grant the order. In addition, the act gives broad authority to the FBI to obtain private records, such as financial, medical or educational, and allows for covert searches while the occupant is not present.
While the ACLU takes no position on the war in Afghanistan, it is concerned with the fate of the close to 1,200 detainees held since September 11. The organization is pursuing a freedom of information action in order to obtain the names of the detainees, Braucher said.
Following on the heels of the passage of the Patriot Act, Bush signed an executive order on November 14 setting up the mechanisms for secret military tribunals. This order was signed without any congressional debate, said Tom Berning, director of litigation for the William E. Morris Institute of Justice. Decisions reached by these tribunals can be reviewed only by the president or the secretary of defense.
Although the Geneva Convention, to which the United States is a party, allows prisoners of war the right to appeal sentences received for war crimes, the executive order denies this right. By labeling prisoners "unlawful combatants," the order circumvents the provisions of the Geneva Convention for POWs.
Though the actions taken in the name of fighting terrorism and maintaining homeland security threaten civil liberties, Arab-Americans in particular are suffering as a result of what Mohyeddin Abdulazis called "a pattern of collective blame." Over 600 acts of physical or threatened violence have been reported to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said Abdulazis. However, there has been a decline in recent weeks.
Discrimination based on racial profiling and the expressed discomfort of passengers or crewmembers has resulted in the expulsion of 47 passengers from aircraft preparing for takeoff, Abdulazis said. Among that number was a member of Bush's secret service and a member of Congress from California, he added.
Abdulazis expressed particular concern about those provisions of the Patriot Act that allow for the indefinite detention of non-citizens, the expanded authority for searches and the widening net of guilt by association. Both due process and the system of checks and balances are undermined.
In Dearborn, Mich., home to the largest Arab-American community in the nation, young men report they are feeling "under siege," Abdulazis said, noting that, "These are exceptional times, indeed."
But Aaron Kappeler, a UA activist and member of the Defend Free Speech and the Bill of Rights Committee, sees historical precedents to recent events. Citing actions taken during World War II, Kappeler noted that this is not the first time in the nation's history that civil liberties have been threatened.
And Abdulazis reminded his listeners, "History didn't begin on September 11." Responding to a question from the audience, Abdulazis said, "You defeat terrorism by defeating its roots."
Whether or not the administration has the will or ability to defeat terrorism at its roots remains unknown. But in these "exceptional times," the words of Benjamin Franklin sound startlingly relevant: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."