Civil Liberties vs. Civil Defense

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Civil Liberties vs. Civil Defense

In the early twenty-first century, global conflicts and devastating terrorist acts created a widespread fear of violence on U.S. soil. As the U.S. government took steps to protect its citizens, some attempts at civil defense (emergency measures enacted in the event of natural disaster or enemy attack) threatened many of the fundamental freedoms that Americans cherish—their civil liberties. Civil liberties are individual rights that are protected by laws and by the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. Such rights include freedom of speech and religion and the right to privacy and a fair trial.

Throughout U.S. history, the government has frequently made efforts to restrict civil liberties during wars and other crises. These efforts have involved wiretapping (listening to people's phone calls or reading their e-mail) and other invasions of privacy; suspending the rights of prisoners; racial profiling (when law enforcement authorities use characteristics based on race to decide whether an individual might be guilty of some crime and therefore worthy of investigation or arrest); and even prohibiting public criticism of the government. The U.S. Constitution makes no formal provision for restricting civil liberties in emergencies, but during crisis situations judges, legislators, and presidents have gone along with suspending certain rights normally taken for granted. Striking a balance between civil liberties and civil defense in times of danger has often been a challenge.

Historical background

The earliest instance of suspension of civil liberties in times of national threat occurred soon after the founding of the nation with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. At the time, the United States seemed on the verge of war with France. The three “Alien” acts gave the president the power to deport suspected aliens, or people from other countries, and restricted the voting rights of immigrants. The Sedition Act targeted all speeches and writings that were believed to be critical of, or “against,” the government of the United States. The four acts taken together gave the president broad powers to seek out and suppress anyone, American or not, who expressed views critical of the government's policies. The acts became very unpopular and they were allowed to expire within a few years.

Wartime suspensions of civil liberties

President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) initiated a widespread suspension of civil liberties in an effort to maintain order during the American Civil War (1861–65). His orders included censoring the mail, imposing martial law (military rule of civilians during an emergency), and suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus—the procedure by which individuals who have been imprisoned can request a court inquiry into whether they are being detained for legitimate reasons.

The United States's involvement in World War I (1914–18) provoked serious and widespread abuses of civil liberties. In 1917, Congress passed the much-debated Espionage Act, which made it a crime to make false reports that might aid an enemy, incite rebellion within the armed forces, or obstruct military recruitment. One of its provisions covered the use of the nation's post office system. Any newspaper, pamphlet, book, letter, or other writing advocating insurrection or the forcible resistance to any U.S. law would be punishable by both fine and imprisonment. The provisions concerning the nation's mail gave the government an opportunity to suppress dissent of almost every kind. Many well-known Americans who criticized the act were imprisoned under its powers. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Espionage Act, saying that when a condition of national emergency arises, protections afforded by the First Amendment could be legitimately curtailed if it was in the interest of national security.

The most dramatic suspension of civil liberties of World War II (1939–45) took place at Japanese internment camps . Over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans were forced into confinement in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy base in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The internment of Japanese Americans without any evidence of their connection to the Japanese war effort, forcing them to leave their homes and businesses to live in remote camps under guard, received the support of all three branches of the federal government. Many years later, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) made a formal apology to the surviving Japanese Americans who had been interned; the U.S. government paid nearly $1.65 billion in reparations to former internees.

Red scares

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, an overwhelming fear of radicalism gripped the United States, even though there were few communists in the country at that time. Communism is an economic or political system in which property is owned collectively by all members of society and labor is organized for the common good. In 1919, the federal government launched nationwide raids to round up and detain alleged communist radicals the government believed were plotting to destroy the United States. U.S. attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936) led this crusade, championing the “100 percent Americanism” philosophy. At the height of this period, known as the Red Scare of 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nongovernmental organization devoted to defending civil rights and civil liberties in the United States, was founded. By the end of 1920, many Americans realized that warnings of a communist threat had been greatly exaggerated.

Following World War II, the fear of communism grew in the United States along with the developing Cold War . This was a period of non-combative conflict, from the 1940s to the 1990s, between the communist East (the U.S.S.R. and the People's Republic of China) and the capitalist West (the United States and Western Europe). In 1950, little-known U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) of Wisconsin suddenly announced that he had “proof” of widespread communist activity in the U.S. government, though he never provided any documentation of this claim. That year, Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act, virtually outlawing communism in the United States. This was followed in 1954 with the Communist Control Act, forbidding communists from running for political office. Both laws were clearly in violation of the First Amendment's protection of freedom of association, but the U.S. Supreme Court went along with them anyway. By 1954, blacklists (lists of people who are in trouble or are being denied entrance or privileges) were in place in the fields of education and entertainment (see Hollywood Blacklisting ); hundreds lost their jobs simply because they dared to question the U.S. government.

Post 9/11 America

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, for which terrorist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, the administration of President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) called for increased security measures. On October 26, 2001, just six weeks after the attacks, Bush signed into law the USA PATRIOT Act (or Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). The act was designed to give the president extra powers to conduct a war on terrorism. Not surprisingly, the act called for American citizens to give up some of their civil liberties in the interest of the war on terror.

Rights of prisoners

Within a month of the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) detained twelve hundred individuals for questioning—the largest roundup since the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, and before that, the Palmer Raids of 1920. Almost all of the detainees were from the Middle East or South Asia. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, immigration officials could hold suspects for a week without charging them and indefinitely if the detainee was judged to be a national security threat.

On November 13, 2001, Bush stated in an executive order that any noncitizen suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda, engaging in or supporting terrorist actions, or harboring a terrorist was not subject to the protections of the U.S. criminal justice system. Suspects were to be held

by the Department of Defense at any location, even outside of the United States, until their release or trial before a military tribunal. Unlike a criminal court, only a two-thirds majority of the military tribunal was necessary for conviction, and evidence could be withheld from the defense team in the interest of national security. The individual had no right to appeal the decision after conviction.

The government converted its army base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002 into a prison and interrogation center for foreign terror suspects. The first batch of prisoners was transported hooded and blindfolded to the base. In all, about 775 prisoners were detained there. The U.S. government called them “enemy combatants,” refusing to grant them prisoner-of-war status, thus denying them protections under the Geneva Conventions (international laws involving the humane treatment of prisoners of war). Many of the detainees at Guantanamo were held for years without being charged with a crime. Some claimed they were tortured in the prison, and many countries that are normally U.S. allies called for the closing of the prison.

In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration on this issue, stating that the detainees were subject to the Geneva Conventions and could not be tried by military tribunals. After years in the prison, some were released without ever being charged. Less than a hundred faced trials in U.S. courts. Nearly three hundred remained in custody without charges.

Privacy invasions

In order to collect information that might lead to knowledge of possible terrorist attacks, the Bush administration wished to suspend some of the rights to privacy that Americans have long enjoyed. The USA PATRIOT Act significantly eased restrictions on searches and surveillance (observation) by law enforcement agents. Government agents no longer needed to show that any crime had been committed in order to carry out searches on individuals. They could demand an individual's records from banks, brokerages, libraries, travel agencies, video stores, telephone services, doctors, and places of worship without the person's knowledge.

In 2002, President Bush secretly authorized government security agents to wiretap (listen in on) the telephone conversations of U.S. citizens without first getting a warrant from the courts if an agent had reason to believe that the individual might be speaking to a member of a terrorist group. This is a policy called warrantless wiretapping. The nation did not learn of it for several years. In 2006, the media also revealed that the administration had a database with records of tens of millions of U.S. phone records, from homes and businesses throughout the nation. Under mounting criticism for acting without authorization, the Bush administration agreed to return to having wiretapping overseen by the federal courts.

The civil liberties versus civil defense debate will certainly continue. Many Americans were only too willing to give up their rights to privacy in the first, frightening days after the September 11, 2001, attacks. But most Americans also believe that giving up the freedoms they treasure in the United States—their civil rights—would mean that the terrorists had won a large battle.


Civil Liberties vs. Civil Defense