April 19, 2005
Political Science 1101
War Time Rights and Our History
Topic: The US government’s incarceration of foreign nationals suspected of terrorism without formal charges or the advice of an attorney.
Historically, this recent barrage on civil liberties is normal to say the least. America is implementing a typical reactionary measure, though it is without reason or logic, to strip citizens and non-citizens alike of their rights that were handed down to them in the constitution. At other times in history America has acted similarly to national security issues, after WWI, WWII, and during the cold war, and she has eventually found herself to be wrong. Incarceration of foreign nationals without due process is a dangerous proposition and it is one with dire consequences. To understand the full scope of the situation, an element of history must be applied first, regarding civil liberties in America. To transgress the line constitutionality for the sake of a goodnight’s sleep is the decision of a generally uneducated populous that is unaware of historical events and the consequences that follow such transgressions. For citizens to allow their individual rights to be stripped for safety is a trap that will surely lead to tyranny. The American government should not be given the power to incarcerate foreign nationals suspected of terrorism without formal charges or the advice of an attorney.
Fear is a strong motive and people are usually willing to give up rights while under its control; this does not make it a logical decision to do so. American’s rights are set out in the constitution for a reason, to give all persons on American soil equal protection and freedom, which should not be compromised for the sake of irrational responses in the name of national security. During the Woodrow Wilson administration, American’s rights were compromised. The media was full of war time propaganda portraying the Germans as a ruthless group who has infiltration our society. Brinkley remarked, “By 1918, however, government-distributed posters and films were offering lurid (and exaggerated) portrayals of the savagery of the Germans.” This exaggeration is similar to the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction scare tactics used recently. Although America was washed in fear during WWI, it hid itself behind some delusional sense of nationalism or patriotism. The Committee on Public Information (CPI) distributed a large portion of this war time propaganda and urged citizens to have a sense of nationalism. Their view of nationalism was characterized by urging the public to report anyone who disagreed with the war or anyone who might contain some descent from national goals. (Brinkley 2004, 614) Reporting one’s neighbors, who might simply be interested in peace, is not a far from our recent nationalism. Nationalism motivated by fear or war can be a dangerous attitude, making people susceptible to gross losses of civil liberties.
If certain rights are denied to specific groups or individuals, where is the legitimacy of such rights? This would void any validity held by the constitution. Our constitutional rights are granted to us unconditionally to protect citizens from themselves and their rulers. Shortly after the declaration of War in 1916, congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917. The government now had a new weapon to fight obstruction to the war inside our boarders; current “weapons to fight terrorism,” such as the Patriot Act I and II, which are so ironically named, echo these past transgressions. The Espionage Act gave government agencies broader rules when combating “spying, sabotage, or obstruction;” yet these terms were never defined and were left up for interpretation.(Brinkley 2004, 614-615)
This mirrors the current administration’s use of the term “terrorism” or “terrorist,” which is only loosely defined. To date people ranging from underage drinkers with fake identification to drug dealers have been labeled terrorist. These kinds of actions must not be permitted. It is every citizen’s national duty to protect civil liberties and by no means should a foreign national or any citizen be held without the due process granted to him under the constitution. Under the new regulations, a suspected terrorist, possibly a foreign national, could be put in jail with out due process. Amnesty International is cited by the American Journal For International law pointing out that, “under the legislation (Patriot Act), a,” non- citizen, “whose removal ‘is unlikely in the reasonably foreseeable future’ may be detained indefinitely.” They go on to say, “People under this broad provision could include non-nationals who cannot be removed because they are stateless…or who are granted relief from deportation because they would face torture if returned to their country of origin.” There are some provisions for the detainee to provide evidence of their innocence, but there are no guidelines to the review of such evidence. The Attorney General has even been known to keep such evidence secret. The Attorney General has, in theory, absolute power over the detainee’s future.(American Journal For International Law 2002, 472) There is no due process in a legislative act where one man can determine the future of suspects without answering to anyone.
The next thing on the Wilson Administration’s agenda was the Sabotage Act and the Sedition Act. These acts went even further into civil liberties and were fuel by the familiar patriotism we see today. These acts went as far as to make it illegal to criticize the president or the government. (Brinkley 2004, 614-615) Civil liberties are the foundation of this country and there was a time when a peaceful protester was put in jail. This is likened to the absence of protesters at the White House on George W Bush’s second inauguration. They were absent because they were not allowed near the White House for security reasons; in a country where free speech is one of our dearest uncompromising rights, it is now treated as a privilege in certain instances.
Shortly after September 11, 2001 the government rounded up over a thousand people and put them in jail unjustly. When it was all said and done only a hand full even had remote ties to terrorist organizations, but what is a terrorist organization? (American Journal for International Law 2002, 471) Well the Justice Department labels Cat Stevens, famous singer song writer, as a terrorist. He was recently flying to America when he was stopped upon arrival and immediately deported back to England. (Ahlers 2005, cnn.com) The Justice Department said he was giving terrorist groups money; in actuality the government had not yet to date even looked into the allegations. It was later reported that the Cat Stevens was giving a Middle Eastern charity money, which the Justice Department claimed was a terrorist organization. Controversy still surrounds the situation, Cat is still on the No-Fly list, and the Department of Justice will not provide any evidence of their allegations. This kind of misinformation is exactly why the government should not have more power to take American’s rights. If the Justice Department does not have to be accountable for their allegations, then who is to say they are just? On a side note, immediately following 9/11 Cat Stevens was performing fund raising concerts to acquire money for the victims’ families; but the Justice Department most likely never looked into that. Mike M. Ahlers for CNN said,
During the conversation, Ridge (director of Homeland Security) expressed satisfaction with the job the Homeland Security Department has done during his tenure, implored Congress to consolidate oversight of the department into fewer committees and defended the decision to refuse entry into the country to singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens. (Ahlers 2005, cnn.com)
The government is not without faults and it is up to the people to safe guard their rights. Americans should heed warnings when someone such as Tom Ridge is asking for less oversight. When departments such as Homeland Security and Justice are holding American’s rights in their hands, should congress really be cutting back on their oversight? Americans should look to their past for answers to theses wartime civil liberties issues. Infringements on rights are nothing new this country, as evident by events surrounding World War I and many more like it during the Spanish American War, World War II, the Korean War, and so on. Through education on the mistakes of past leaders, Americans can prevent their reoccurrences. America has tried to make good on many of it’s mistakes, Japanese internment camps for example, but it has historically been many years later. Preventing such follies now, by exercising political activism, can lead to fewer apologies down the road and a stronger constitution to protect all Americans.
Brinkley, Alan. 2004. The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History Of The American People Volume II: From 1865. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
(Brinkley is a professor of history at Columbia and has been reviewed many times)
U.S. Detention of Aliens in Aftermath of September 11 Attacks (in Contemporary Practice of the United States Relating to International Law). The American Journal of International Law. Retrieved April 13, 2005, from http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-9300%28200204%2996%3A2%3C470%3AU DOAIA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-1
(this was a peer reveiwed source)
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