Forged in response to the Palmer Raids of 1919, the American Civil Liberties Union learned the hard way that civil liberties and human rights are the first to strike in war fever. We fought the internment of Japanese Americans, lived the investigation into McCarthyism and House Un-American Activities, and challenged the FBI’s COINTELPRO abuses.
A week before the tragic attacks of September 11th, I took up a new position as head of the ACLU. Though I was still new and unsure, the organization itself had weathered many previous crises, but none like this one. On the occasion of the 20th commemoration of September 11th, the struggle for human rights and civil liberties continues to this day.
Three lessons from the “war on terror” should guide us. First, we need to remember that the American public has a conscience and can be activated to use it. Second, civil society and the courts have an important role to play as a bulwark for the overwhelming power of government. Finally, we need to recognize the damage that was done after September 11th. After 20 years you can’t just turn the page. There is still too much to be done.
After 9/11, an alarmed Congress rushed to pass the USA Patriot Act, which ushered in a new era of mass surveillance. Only one senator – Russ Feingold – had the courage to vote against. The crime occurred 35 days after the attacks and was 342 pages long. Congressmen later admitted they did not understand or even read it before voting on the bill. Some liberal senators confided to me at the time that at this moment of national tragedy they were feeling the pressure to “stand by one” and support President Bush.
Initially, government media representatives also admitted the benefit of the doubt. An NPR correspondent told me privately that America must do everything possible to stop the next terrorist attack, arguing that the ACLU’s tough defense of civil liberties was wrong. Other news outlets were slow to cover the civil liberty issues that arose from the 9/11 attacks.
Over time, the public perception of the “war on terror” would change. Local Bill of Rights Defense committees launched a grassroots wave to condemn the Patriot Act in more than 400 communities. Details were revealed of what the war actually brought about – mass deportations; rampant racist, ethnic and religious profiling; FBI Calls for “Voluntary” Interviews with Young Muslim, South Asian and Arab Men; secret “black pages” in which the CIA suspects disappeared; Torture; Transferring suspects to countries that would torture them for us. Each exposure helped transform unwavering support for the war on terror into skepticism about the overwhelming power of the government. When the Abu Ghraib photos came to light in April 2004, America’s collective conscience began to work. And a major turning point came in December 2004 when the ACLU began disclosing documents secured under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) detailing the widespread use and sanctioning of torture. Only then did the tenor of the political debates fundamentally change over some of the most outrageous abuses.