President Bush often says that terrorists want to destroy our democratic freedoms. Part of the justification for our continuing military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq is the promotion of democracy in those countries.
What about protecting our democratic freedoms at home? Haven't our enemies achieved one of their goals if our government, in the name of fighting tyranny and terrorism, unduly erodes our civil rights and liberties?
Consider just a few of the assaults on our basic rights in the past year:
- Capt. James Yee, the former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, has endured prosecution, public humiliation, lack of due process and three months of imprisonment during which he was shackled in solitude - on charges for which military intelligence has found no evidence.
Initially, the military suspected Lee of infiltrating Guantanamo. Instead of bringing conspiracy charges, they charged him with taking home classified material. Lacking evidence for this crime, the military has now charged him with allegations of adultery and keeping pornography on his government computer.
- Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, experienced an even more dramatic violation of his civil rights when U.S. immigration officials seized him for questioning on Sept. 26, 2002, at Kennedy International Airport. Though the federal government had no evidence connecting him to terrorists, he was not allowed to call an attorney or his family. Nor was he accused of any crime. Nevertheless, the U.S. government sent him to Syria - a country we have denounced for its human rights abuses, especially torture - for further interrogation.
For 10 months, Arar was locked in an underground cell and repeatedly tortured until military intelligence determined he had no ties with any terrorist groups.
By then, however, Arar's life, like that of James Yee, had been dealt an irreversible blow.
- Brett Bursey is one of countless citizens whose right to free speech, including the right to dissent, has been seriously abridged.
The Justice Department is now prosecuting Brett Bursey for holding a "No War for Oil" placard during a presidential visit to Columbia, S.C. Whenever President Bush travels the country, the Secret Service orders local police to create "free speech zones," where protesters are quarantined. Often, these zones are quite distant from where the president is speaking. In this case, the Secret Service had created such a zone half a mile from where Bush would be speaking.
If peaceful protesters exercise their right to free speech outside of these bullpens, they are arrested for disorderly conduct, obstruction or trespassing. The Secret Service, in short, guarantees that neither the president nor the media will witness citizens' displeasure with the president's policies.
Bursey was standing, with his sign, amid hundreds of Bush supporters when police told him he had to move because his sign was offensive. He was arrested when he refused to move to the designated "free-speech zone."
Now he is being prosecuted under an obscure law that prohibits "entering a restricted area around the president of the United States." If convicted, Bursey could face prison time and a $5,000 fine. The Justice Department, for its part, will have established a chilling precedent for curtailing the free- speech rights of protesters across the nation.
In response, the ACLU is suing the Secret Service for suppressing protesters in at least seven other states.
We understand that the threat of terrorism requires our government to balance surveillance and scrutiny with fundamental rights and liberties. But this administration has gone too far, subjecting innocent people to imprisonment and torture without evidence and equating protesters with terrorists. If a foreign government did this, we would justifiably describe it as a nation in desperate need of democratic reform.
Throughout our history, Americans have put up with the messiness and noisiness of democracy because we've understood that our form of self-government is the best antidote to tyranny.
It still is.
Originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 11, 2004