THESE ARE scary times. Al Qaeda terrorists prepare to attack American
civilians. A desperate and paranoid North Korea builds an arsenal of nuclear
And how does our government respond? The Bush administration declares an
urgent need to invade Iraq.
Why Iraq? Because Saddam Hussein may have weapons of destruction, which he
might use against some unspecified enemy some time in the future. Since we
aren't all that sure, we must wage a pre-emptive war against a nation that,
just by coincidence, happens to sit on the world's second-largest reserve of
Follow that? If not, you're not alone.
The domestic scene is just as surreal. Rank opportunism rules. In the name
of preventing terrorism, the Bush administration has employed a politics of
fear to create the most extensive national security apparatus in our nation's
Military tribunals. Mandatory registration. Mass detentions. Electronic
surveillance. Government secrecy. Executive privilege. Office of Total
Awareness. Perpetual war.
Folks, this is the stuff of such dystopian novels as Aldous Huxley's "Brave
New World" or George Orwell's "1984." As a historian, I hear echoes of voices
from the past -- survivors of Nazi-occupied nations, dissidents who
disappeared in Soviet prisons, Japanese Americans ordered to internment camps,
political activists persecuted under McCarthyism.
No, none of these historical analogies is appropriate -- yet. But we
civilians have just as much responsibility to protect our liberties as do
combat soldiers. And right now, we are governed by an administration that
wields far too much power -- simply because it can.
Fifteen months ago, we discovered that two immense oceans can't protect us
from attacks on our own soil. Afterward, a traumatized people wanted to trust
their president. But our leaders have taken advantage of our fear. The Bush
administration has planted the seeds of a security state that can, without
judicial oversight, congressional opposition, and popular resistance, grow
into a repressive government.
I'm hardly alone in fearing our government's excessive usurpation of power.
Nearly two dozen cities and towns have passed resolutions declaring their
determination to refuse federal requests that violate citizens' civil rights
Also worried is the American Civil Liberties Union, which recently launched
a multimillion-dollar national advertising campaign called "Keep American Safe
and Free." Television spots feature a close-up of a hand cutting up and
rewriting the U.S. Constitution. A voice-over charges Attorney General John
Ashcroft with violating our right to free speech and our guarantee against
unreasonable searches and seizures.
"The Bush administration," says ACLU national spokeswoman Emily Whitfield,
"has presented Americans with a false dichotomy that we must choose between
being safe or free." The ACLU is even asking Americans to write Ashcroft to
express our defiant willingness to defend American civil rights and liberties.
Hussein, a brutal and bullying dictator, is not the person who most
directly threatens our democracy. Al Qaeda terrorists and North Korean leaders
pose a far more dangerous threat to our nation.
Threats to democracy, however, are not always external. They sometimes
burrow from within. Keep your eye on those members of the Bush administration
who can't wait to dismantle big government services and regulations but seem
way too eager to expand the state's power to curtail our civil rights and
For more information, visit www.aclu.org/safeandfree
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle