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Excerpts from It’s A Free Country

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More Safe Less Free: A Short History of Wartime Civil Liberties, by Ira Glasser

  1. During periods of war, or the fear of war, all governments, including democratic governments and including governments apparently devoted and committed to liberty and individual rights, use the fear that is abroad in the land as an opportunity to expand government power at the expense of rights and to suppress dissent from whatever policies they want to pursue. The government answers the crucial question clearly and without ambivalence: Everything is now changed; we do indeed need to be less free in order to be more safe, for unless we are safe from the evil that threatens us, we shall lose all our freedoms. Every government, to one extent or another, makes that claim during wartime.
  2. Most people, because they are afraid, go along. This includes most people who have always believed themselves to be supporters of individual rights. They hope that the reductions in freedom will be minimal and that they will not endure beyond the perceived emergency. But they go along. Traditional freedoms seem "too extravagant to endure" when evil threatens. And most people, when they are afraid, will not take a chance on freedom.

… It was aimed at “domestic traitors,” by which was meant anyone who criticized the government. The Sedition Act made it a crime, punishable by both a fine and imprisonment, to publish “false, scandalous and malicious” criticism of the government, Congress, or the president, with the intent to heap contempt upon them or damage their reputation. All this within seven years of the passage of the First Amendment.

But as it turned out, the Alien and Sedition Acts identified no traitors and made no Americans safer. To the contrary, American citizens and their rights were the only casualties. … No alien was ever deported or incarcerated, … But the Sedition Act was widely enforced against American citizens, all of them Republicans (members of Thomas Jefferson’s party) and political opponents of President Adams and his administration’s policies. The trade-off between safety and freedom had been struck, but the targets consisted entirely of loyal Americans who had criticized Adams and his policies. Editors (including the grandson of Benjamin Franklin), scientists, pamphleteers, and even one member of Congress were arrested, tried, and convicted; all were fined and imprisoned; one, Franklin’s grandson Benjamin Bache, died in jail. No one was made safer by these prosecutions, because the targets posed no danger to public safety.

And just as the fear of war with France had in 1798 led to the nation’s first sedition act, so now, for the first time since 1798, Congress passed another sedition law, aimed at suppressing dissent and protest. Congress had already passed the Espionage Act in 1917, only nine weeks after declaring war against Germany. And just as fear of French agents had served as the pretext in 1798 for the prosecution and imprisonment of domestic critics, so in 1917, fear of German agents led to the same result.

As the war went on, popular support for it grew, and tolerance for dissent diminished. President Woodrow Wilson had requested Congress give him the explicit power to censor the press, and had been rejected. But the Espionage Act was worded broadly enough to permit the government to prosecute people for nothing more than critical opinions strongly expressed. Over two thousand prosecutions were brought under the Espionage Act, and more than a thousand resulted in convictions, almost all of them for expressing criticism of the war. State laws mimicked the federal intolerance for dissent, and additional prosecutions were brought under state laws. One man was sentenced to prison for reading the Declaration of Independence in public. A minister was sentenced to fifteen years for saying that the war was unChristian. A newspaper editor was convicted for questioning the constitutionality of the draft and charging that Wall Street interests had dragged us into the war. And the labor leader Eugene V Debs was imprisoned for denouncing the war as a capitalist plot. Although these criticisms and opinions were harshly expressed, often with invective, they were no different in that respect from the rhetoric of American colonists or from Republican editors in 1798 or from Democratic critics of Lincoln’s policies during the Civil War.

A year after the Espionage Act was passed, the Sedition Act became law. This new law left nothing to chance, and did not require the interpretation of critical words as espionage. Under the 1918 Sedition Act, it became a crime to print, speak, write, or publish any words that heaped contempt or scorn upon govern ment or used scurrilous or abusive language to damage the reputation of the government or to disparage its military uniforms. The penalties for violating this law were not trivial: twenty years in prison and a $10,000 fine for each separate offense.

The Sedition Act was harshly enforced and thus almost completely suffocated criticism of the war. But not a single traitor was found. No spies were convicted, or even indicted. The targets of the Espionage and Sedition Acts were critics, political dissenters, pacifists, labor radicals, and immigrants, often of Italian or German or Russian descent. Although the government claimed that those indicted were dangerous, and much of the public felt safer as a result, no one was made safer as a result of their prosecution and imprisonment. There was no trade-off between safety and liberty. Only liberty suffered.

That is also what is wrong with the government’s program to interview—and in some cases detain—Americans of Arab descent and Muslims, as if those characteristics were proxies for criminal evidence. Interviewing five thousand people based on national origin is like imprisoning the Japanese-Americans: The time and energy spent on innocent people not only violates their rights, it diverts the FBI from investigations based on evidence. The rationale, which appeals to many Americans, is that since the WTC bombers were Muslims of Arab origins, the investigation of terrorism ought logically to begin with American Muslims of Arab origins. That is the very same logic that led to the Japanese-American internment. It is the same logic that leads the Drug Enforcement Agency and countless state troopers trained by them to pull over cars driven by black drivers to search for drugs. As one state trooper said in defending that practice, most drug dealers are black or Latino, so it makes sense to pull cars over driven by blacks or Latinos. But even assuming he was right that most drug dealers are black and Latino, it does not follow that most blacks and Latinos are drug dealers. Most NBA basketball players are black, but most blacks are not NBA basketball players. Most American jazz musicians are black, but most blacks are not jazz musicians. And if you wanted to find a good jazz band, you wouldn’t begin by rounding up random blacks. Nor would you draft an NBA team that way. Yet that is exactly what the government is doing when it targets Arab-Americans for questioning: Being Arab-American is not a likely link to evidence of information about terrorist crimes any more than being opposed to abortion is evidence of bombing abortion clinics. And the racist nature of what Attorney General John Ashcroft is doing is revealed by the fact that he never suggested pursuing abortion-clinic terrorists by questioning every one opposed to abortion.

The dangers we face from people who are willing to kill themselves in order to terrorize us are clear after September 11. Those dangers are real. But the targets of many of the government’s actions and proposals are not connected to those dangers by any evidence. Rather, our fears are being manipulated, as they have been in past crises, to gain support for measures that violate rights without providing safety; indeed, in some cases, safety is compromised. We are looking under lampposts again, but the keys we seek aren’t there. We may be led to feel safe, and therefore be willing, as Alexander Hamilton predicted 215 years ago, to relinquish our rights, but feeling safe is not the same as being safe, as our history repeatedly teaches us.

No one is made safer when we arrest, detain, or spy on the wrong people. When the innocent are arrested, the guilty remain free. When the innocent are investigated, the guilty remain hidden. And when rights are violated in the name of safety, most often we lose both our rights and our safety. We need only to look to our own history to read this cautionary tale.