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Civil Liberties and the Fear of Freedom

Those who support civil liberties, not only because they protect the rights of the accused but also because they enhance security and quality of life for all, have a lonely job. Deemed allies of terrorism by the Attorney General, they find little support in any quarter. Recognizing the origins of this antipathy is more essential than ever.

Hardly any member of Congress seems to object to Administration efforts to withhold and manipulate information about the war, just as long as Congress can claim it's in the know. Even more surprising is Congressional acquiescence in arbitrary arrests and kangaroo courts for resident aliens. Such actions have elicited condemnation from Congress when visited on US citizens detained abroad. With the exception of Russ Feingold's courageous dissent, even such liberal stalwarts as Paul Wellstone have been silent in the face of draconian restrictions on our civil liberties. As far as I am aware, Wellstone's only apology for his inaction lies in the rather lame excuse that the worst provisions of the new "Patriot Act" have sunset provisions. I wonder how Wellstone the former political scientist, would explain to a class just how democratic principles and practices can be simply turned on and off like a light switch. On civil liberties, even the liberal wing of the Democratic Party clearly has its finger in the political wind.

The wind is a chill one. A recent Washington Post poll finds that nearly three out of four believe it should be legal for the government to wiretap conversations between suspected terrorists and their attorneys. A larger majority supports plans by federal prosecutors to interview young men here on visas from the Middle East. Nearly nine in 10 believe the United States is justified in detaining foreign nationals for violating immigration laws.

Civil libertarians argue that civil liberties are the first casualty of war and its attendant threats to our safety. Yet disconcerting as that assumption may be, I doubt it reaches the depth of our problem. Many hundreds of thousands of us are at risk annually from pollution and auto fatalities, but the corporate entities that foster--and often conceal-- these risks continue to enjoy unprecedented legal and political rights. Those who differ from core American values, even peacefully, are perceived as more threatening than even the most belligerent defenders of racial, corporate, or gender privilege. Terrorism against women's health clinics has been a fact of life for years, but our government hardly investigates let alone jails all "pro life" sympathizers.

Civil liberties for those who need them, those who challenge core values, have seldom been high on many Americans' agendas. Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff recently reported that well before September 11, seventy -one percent of those polled agreed that "it is important for the government to hold the media in check." Only 24 percent believed people should be allowed to display art with content that may be offensive to others. Survey research has notorious problems with the timing and content of questions and the nature of the samples selected, but there is little doubt in my mind that the Bill of Rights would not have withstood a national plebiscite during most of my lifetime.

Some blame our public schools. Many civics classes devote little time to the contemporary political implications of the Bill of Rights. I would go beyond this. Our public schools are often cradles and expressions of the fears and insecurities that encourage political repression. The daily treatment of students more than the curricula is at fault. Many children on this island, where schools are considered reasonably liberal, attend classes where all children are punished if the teacher cannot determine who caused a disruption. Racial profiling has its eerie analogue in the guilt- by- association practices of these classrooms. Worse still, our regional high school's co-curricular policy punishes students who are merely present at out- of- school events where illegal substances are found. The students need not have consumed nor even been aware of such substances.

How we treat our children often is the best expression of our own fears and insecurities. I am not a believer in a universal human nature, but I do believe that all human beings confront a similar set of challenges. These include human mortality, our perpetual capacity to invent and reinvent ourselves, and a world that may always harbor protean and unpredictable natural and human elements. We need some order to live. Nonetheless, the insecurity evoked by finitude and unpredictability leads many--from social conservatives to left campus speech code advocates-- to crave and claim all embracing, unitary certainties.

All too few cultures and epochs have been able consistently to brook, let alone encourage, efforts to build human order on as great a degree of individuality and personal liberty as possible. For the Founding Fathers, revolution against a tyrannical power and the rare opportunity of diverse groups to express differences in views and ways of life even as they were compelled to form a new political union reshaped their mindset. A few came to value and to win, against the conservative critics of their day, a wider scope for political participation and individual freedom. Rather than undermining social order, they fashioned a polity with the flexibility and openness to accommodate the vagaries of the natural and human world. They did not create a perfect union, merely one that offered some possibilities for future challenge and growth. Unfortunately today, even our children have few opportunities for real freedom. Most political activism now emanates from those who see only threats in the human capacity to grow and challenge mainstream views and ways of life.

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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