ACLU Joins with Broad New Coalition in Defense of Freedom: "America Must Not Cede Democracy to Terrorism"

September 20, 2001 12:00 am

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ACLU Joins with Broad New Coalition in Defense of Freedom: “America Must Not Cede Democracy to Terrorism”

Statement of Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union


WASHINGTON — A new chapter in American history was written last week when terrorists attacked our nation, wreaking terrible death and destruction on thousands of innocent people.

The attack not only targeted our personal lives and property, it was also an attack on the freedom and equality that are the hallmarks of our democracy.

Terror, by its very nature, is intended not only to destroy, but also to intimidate a people, forcing them to take actions that are not in their best interest. We must not be intimidated. We must not let terrorism win.

Today the American Civil Liberties Union is proud to join with this broad coalition of concerned groups from across the political, religious, ethnic and racial spectrums, a coalition that has come together to speak with one voice in the defense of freedom at a time of national crisis. Together, we will fight to defend the liberty enshrined in our Constitution and the tolerance embodied in our national character.

We pledge to work with our national leaders in their fight to bring those responsible for this tragedy to justice. And we believe that our nation can, as it has during other times of national emergency, reconcile the requirements of security with the demands of liberty.

Last week, we were heartened that our national leaders were nearly unanimous in their insistence that these attacks not be used to diminish liberty in the United States.

Unfortunately, this week there has been a rush to change our nation’s laws without any meaningful opportunity for deliberation or debate on how either our security or our freedom would be affected.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a major expansion of government’s power to detain and deport immigrants who he believes may engage in terrorist activity or who “may endanger the national security.” Without a legal hearing, there would be no opportunity to contest the Attorney General’s decision or scrutinize the criteria upon which the decision was made. Justified as a response to our national emergency, these rules would become a permanent part of our immigration laws.

These actions offend the Constitution and are an affront to the millions of law-abiding immigrants in our country as well as the millions of other citizens who are sons and daughters of immigrants.

The framers understood that a system of checks and balances minimizes the risk of governmental abuse.

Yet, other proposals are aimed at reducing the judiciary to little more than a rubber stamp in the government’s efforts to monitor Internet activity. These proposals, which would apply to all people, could trigger law enforcement actions based on speculation and prejudice rather than fact. The Senate adopted these amendments in the middle of the night with little debate.

We cannot permit judges charged with safeguarding our constitutional rights to be seen as obstacles to our safety.

As we respond to this national crisis – and respond we must – we must not take for granted our basic freedoms, including the steadfast commitment to civil liberties and tolerance of others. Nor should we be willing to sacrifice these fundamental values, nor look the other way as they are undermined.

For if we do, the enemy will have won.

Security and civil liberties do not have to be at odds. We must take action – but we must take appropriate measures that increase our safety while protecting basic freedoms and liberties.

What then do we, the American Civil Liberties Union, propose?

First, government officials should increase their efforts to prevent and punish unwarranted, bigoted attacks on fellow citizens of Arab descent and members of religious minorities, including Muslims and Sikhs. With roughly 6.5 million Muslims in the United States and 3.5 million Arab Americans, we must not treat our neighbors, friends and co-workers as the enemy. We applaud the statements and acts of President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller in support of this view and strongly urge all law enforcement officials nationwide to emulate their actions.

Second, Americans should think carefully and clearly about the balance between national security and individual freedom, and we must acknowledge the fact that some will seek to restrict freedom for ideological and other reasons that have little to do with security.

Third, governments and citizen groups should determine whether national, state and local authorities are effectively using the extensive security and investigative powers they already possess before rushing to create new powers. And if the existing security measures are found to be inadequate, we must understand why and remedy such problems.

Fourth, there are immediate actions that can be taken to increase security at our nation’s airports without undermining basic freedoms and liberties. For example, airport security vendors should be screened in accordance with their constitutional rights; the cockpit door should be fortified; and luggage should be matched against passenger lists.

Finally, we should establish guidelines for evaluating new proposals that would affect our basic civil liberties. At the very least, proposed changes to restrict liberty should be examined and debated in public; they should be proven effective in increasing safety and security; and they should be fairly applied in a non-discriminatory manner.

The American people must be reassured that constitutional guarantees will apply in times of crisis and tranquility alike.

We can find a measure of reassurance – and guidance — in the words of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who said in a 1972 opinion that resonates today:

“This is a country which stands tallest in troubled times, a country that clings to fundamental principles, cherishes its constitutional heritage, and rejects simple solutions that compromise the values that lie at the roots of our democratic system.”

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