Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Blast From the Past

My day job has the best of me at the moment, so I've reached into the archives (i.e., stuff I wrote before I had a blog) to see what I can post. The following is from 2002. In its defense, the ACLU finally found its voice a year or two after this was written, but its unwillingness to launch a full-throated protest during the sensitive period immediately post-9/11 was costly to them and to the nation. They--and we--have been playing catch-up ever since.

The more depressing thing about re-reading what I wrote six years ago is how many of the outrages I mention are now essentially facts of life in Bush's America. And even I didn't anticipate back then that my country would add its name to the roster of those who torture. I wonder how many more years it will be before we right ourselves.

Anyway, here are my thoughts from the summer of '02:

I love the American Civil Liberties Union. I have been a member of the ACLU, on and off, for a quarter century. No organization in the United States has been more vigilant in patrolling the frontier between freedom and tyranny. And while I wish that they would at least reluctantly acknowledge that the Second Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights (innocent gun owners deserve protection, too), only the deliberately dishonest would accuse the ACLU of being a mere tool of the left. When the despicable, ignorant, malicious, and constitutionally-protected Nazis needed a permit to march through a heavily Jewish Chicago suburb in the late 1970s, the ACLU was there, fingers clamped tightly over noses, to insist that they receive it.

Yet here we are, ten months after September 11, and I don’t know if maybe I’ve spent too much time watching trailers for that new Scooby-Doo movie, but all I can say is: ACLU, where are you?

Foreigners are languishing in prison without being charged with a crime. The government is planning to listen in on confidential attorney-client conversations. Wiretaps are as easy for cops to obtain as jelly donuts. Government agents have access to your computer records whenever it strikes their fancy. And now, American citizens are being detained indefinitely because the Attorney General believes that they might—might!—be planning to do something nasty.


I presume that the ACLU opposes each of these assaults on civil liberties. On their website (, they opine that President Bush’s proposed Department of Homeland Security is “long on secrecy, short on needed accountability”. That less-than-forceful condemnation can be found just below a link to a story entitled, “Appeals Court Rejects School Teacher's Attempt to Keep Transgender Employees from Bathrooms”.
Now I don’t want to denigrate the need of the transgendered for lavatory liberation, but what in the name of Clarence Darrow is going on here? It’s as if your doctor, as you staggered into the emergency room bleeding from the ears, immediately started tending to the hangnail on your big toe.

There will be time to struggle for restroom equality. There will be time for battling rural southern judges who want to plaster the Ten Commandments on every public facility from the crick to the holler. There will be time for safeguarding the rights of high school students to wear vulgar t-shirts celebrating the latest talentless shock band.

But that time is not now.

This, my friends, is the civil liberties Super Bowl. The Bush Administration isn’t flicking specks of paint off the fenders of the Constitution any more; they are under the hood pulling out the wires and dislodging the hoses. Habeas corpus. Attorney-client privilege. Speedy and public trial. The right to face your accuser. The protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The presumption of innocence. These are the foundations of what it means to be a free people, and those foundations are currently being toppled to the overwhelming delight of a terrified nation. This is no time for position papers and a couple of timid lawsuits. This is time for a loud, indignant, and sustained campaign to preserve our birthright.

Maybe an organized, vocal, and relentless ACLU presence wouldn’t matter. Maybe people are so angry and vengeful that they are willing to barter our national heritage for a pound of Osama bin Laden’s flesh. Or maybe after nearly a year of red alerts and ceaseless government warnings about anthrax and smallpox and water-, air-, and food-borne contaminants, Americans are willing to torch every sheet of yellowed parchment in the National Archives just to make it all go away. But right now we don’t know, because only one side of the argument is being heard, unless you count the occasional hapless law professor who wanders into Bill O’Reilly’s intellectual slaughterhouse to face some smug Heritage Foundation type who invariably tut-tuts about the naiveté of overage flower children.

Only the ACLU has the record, the credibility, and the gravitas to lead this fight, to present the American people with the other side of the debate. Only the ACLU can rally the troops, forge the battle plan, and provide courage to the millions of Americans who fiercely oppose the Administration’s actions, but currently feel isolated and vulnerable. Only the ACLU can bring the intellectual firepower to the table that can match wits with cable television’s dreary procession of former prosecutors, terrorism “experts”, retired soldiers, and war-loving think tank geeks.

The stakes could not be higher. ACLU, where are you?

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