On September 4, 2001, my first official day on the job at the ACLU, our agenda was already full as we embarked on a new decade of defending civil liberties. Just one week later, our nation’s future—and the ACLU’s — was fundamentally altered.
As we mourned the innocent victims and honored the fallen heroes of 9/11, we were reminded that America is not only the land of the free, but also the home of the brave. On the evening of the attacks, President Bush addressed the nation and stated, “Our country is strong. Terrorist acts can shake the foundation of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.”
We could not have imagined that in the decade to follow, our nation would engage in policies that betrayed our foundational values and undermined our Constitution. Pledges by the Bush administration to uphold civil liberties in the wake of 9/11 quickly rang hollow.
We lost our way when, instead of addressing the challenge of terrorism consistent with our values, our government chose the path of torture and targeted killing, of Guantánamo and military commissions, of warrantless government spying and the entrenchment of a national surveillance state.
That is not who we are, or who we want to be. And that is why the ACLU has vigorously campaigned to defend the basic values of American democracy. We argued for transparency and accountability, robust checks and balances, due process rights for all, equal protection for religions and ethnicities, and First Amendment protections for protesters, dissenters and whistleblowers. We won landmark legal victories, pursued years-long court cases, blocked harmful laws and policies, and protected the rights of thousands of people nationwide.
But a decade after 9/11, the U.S. is at risk of enshrining a permanent state of emergency in which our nation’s core values are subordinated to ever-expanding claims of national security. In other words: our nation still faces the challenge of remaining both safe and free.
Today, we released a report entitled, “A Call to Courage: Reclaiming Our Liberties Ten Years After 9/11,” which shows how sacrificing America’s values — including justice, individual liberty and the rule of law — ultimately undermines our safety. Many of the controversial policies we discuss have been shrouded in secrecy under the rubric of national security, preventing oversight and examination by the public.
The unique danger inherent in trying to articulate a war against terrorism, or even a war against Al-Qaeda, is that the “end” of such a conflict is a distant abstraction, not an actual event. Our report challenges the contention that a “war on terror” that takes place everywhere and will last forever makes us safer. By invoking the right to use lethal force and indefinite military detention outside battle zones we hamper the international struggle against terrorism by straining relations with our allies and hand a propaganda tool to our enemies.
Taking on the legacy of the Bush administration’s sanction of torture — perhaps the most shameful of post-9/11 policies — the report warns that the lack of accountability for torture leaves the door open to future abuses.
The report details how profiling based on race and religion has become commonplace nationwide. Fundamentally, profiling-based counterterrorism investigations are doomed to fail because they are predicated on the false and unfair assumption that Muslims are more likely to engage in terrorism than other groups.
Finally, the report delves into the many ways the 9/11 attacks have raised the risk of a permanent surveillance state, through the use of warrantless wiretapping, email monitoring and cell phone location tracking.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we call on all Americans to reflect on the turbulent decade behind us, and to recommit to values that define our nation, including justice, due process, equal protection, and the rule of law.
Our way forward lies in decisively turning our backs on the policies and practices that violate our greatest strength: our Constitution and the commitment it embodies to the rule of law. Liberty and security do not compete in a zero-sum game; our freedoms are the very foundation of our strength and security.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll continue the discussion in a series of blog posts on the state of civil liberties since 9/11. And on Thursday, September 15 at 4 p.m. EDT, we’ll be hosting a live chat on Facebook. We hope you’ll join us; send your questions to @ACLU with #ACLUchat and #911 hashtags, or leave them in the comments section below.
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