Published on Wednesday, December 31, 2003 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Threats to Democracy at Code-Red Level
by Edward Wenk Jr.
The shock and awe of 9/11 has not faded. Americans remain in jeopardy of terrorists willing to die simply to lull and frighten innocent civilians. Taking precautions to preserve our security is essential, but in that process, have we self-inflicted a second class of danger that threatens our cherished freedom, justice and democracy, a condition grim enough to deserve code red?
Consider the USA Patriot Act titled "Uniting and strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Funds to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." Noble as that objective is, the act's provisions are scary. Government can now collect data on library withdrawals, charge card records, medical and financial histories. Surveillance can be ratcheted to monitor your e-mail, wiretap you under a generic warrant, search your home without a warrant and label you a "terrorist" if you are among activists exercising rights to dissent. In a swoon of hysteria, Congress passed this statute in 45 days with only two hours of hearings
Pending is Patriot Act II, the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, to legalize indefinite detention without charges, to end court-imposed limits to spying on religious and political organizations and to withdraw citizenship for civil disobedience.
Constitutional lawyers claim the First Amendment is violated by letting the FBI investigate those engaged in free expression, free association and unfettered practice of religion. The Fourth Amendment is violated by intrusive surveillance without probable cause, infringing privacy of targeted individuals. Human rights to moral order are maimed as aliens are tried in military tribuna1s able to impose death sentences without appeal.
Ponder even more zealous implementation by Attorney General John Ashcroft should the United States be attacked by terrorists with a nuclear weapon.
If these acts stir alarms, connect the dots of other risks to democracy:
The Electoral College created by the Constitution has proven obsolete. It led to George W. Bush's presidency even though Al Gore had a popular majority of 540,000. The election turned on electoral votes in Florida where three counties were in dispute. Voting machines left hanging chads and butterfly ballots that warranted a recount. With the nation paralyzed by uncertainty, a country judge in Tallahassee, the Florida Supreme Court and its Legislature ignited a saga of recounts and deadlines. The U.S. Supreme Court abruptly stopped proceedings that would likely have shown Gore the victor. Citizens didn't elect Bush; the Supreme Court appointed him illegally.
To block a replay requires a constitutional amendment. Since that process takes years, improvements for the 2004 election have been mandated in voting machinery.
Machines now being acquired are highly vulnerable to fraud. Corporate owners will only rent and not sell their equipment, keeping inner workings secret from election officials and providing no paper trail for recounts.
The concentration of media also threatens democracy because citizens can be swamped with biased news or blocked from any. Democracy requires that those who govern do so at the informed consent of the governed. By allowing a few network operators to own a majority of stations in a given area, and by abandoning principles of "equal time," the Federal Communications Commission lets stations broadcast political propaganda of authorities in power -- entertaining but not enlightening.
Reforms in campaign funding do not diminish the imperative to raise funds for TV ads. Time and energy thus required of candidates dilutes their primary role as policy-makers.
The military-industrial-congressional complex controls half the national budget and subverts priorities preferred by the electorate.
The White House blocks freedom of information and keeps secret names of campaign contributors seeking access to power as major policies are drafted. Vice President Dick Cheney hides his cadre of advisers on energy policy. The administration's rationale for war with Iraq wanders while the public wonders about military intelligence and true presidential goals.
The White House lacks tolerance for healthy dissent. The most influential advisers have the same biases as the president, nurturing error, blunder and folly.
Redistricting anticipated by the Constitution to reflect population shifts has been pathologically distorted by gerrymandering so that incumbent Republicans are virtually guaranteed re-election.
Education of children neglects the beauty of democracy with its civic responsibilities, so few young people vote.
Democracy is not born in the genes. It takes continuing diligence. While our government tries earnestly to seed democracy abroad in the Middle East, at home it, ironically, shrinks democracy and even the appetite for freedom.
Vigilance is essential about physical threats from abroad, but we must also guard against erosion of our liberties and invasion of our privacy. The electorate should insist that Congress serve as a balance wheel, not a rubber stamp, that elected officials be held accountable, that public interest advocacy be nourished and that the media be free to practice journalism's highest standards.
With dots connected, these 10 threats to democracy are at a level of Code Red.
Edward Wenk Jr. was the first science adviser to Congress, on policy staffs of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and was founding director of the University of Washington's Program in Social Management of Technology.
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