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With advances in technology and ever-increasing government surveillance, the situation has worsened since Orwell’s imaginings of the future. —John Whitehead, the Rutherford Institute, November 4, 2002
Despite the self-satisfaction of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, and the somnolence of the press, there is rising resistance around the country to the serial abuses of our liberties. More Americans are becoming aware of what Wisconsin Democratic senator Russ Feingold prophesied from the Senate floor on October 11, 2001, when he was the only Senator to vote against Ashcroft’s USA Patriot Act: “There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country where police were allowed to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country where the government is entitled to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your e-mail communications; if we lived in a country where people could be held in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, the government would probably discover more terrorists or would-be terrorists, just as it would find more lawbreakers generally. But that wouldn’t be a country in which we would want to live.”
Some of that warning has come to pass. What has become more specifically evident is underlined by Lincoln Caplan in the November-December issue of Legal Affairs (A Magazine of Yale Law School): “The [USA Patriot Act] . . . authorized law enforcement agencies to inspect the most personal kinds of information—medical records, bank statements, college transcripts, even church memberships. But what is more startling than the scope of these new powers is that the government can use them on people who aren’t suspected of committing a crime.”
As then house majority leader Dick Armey—a conservative Republican libertarian—told Georgetown University law professor Jeffrey Rosen in the October 21 New Republic: “The Justice Department . . . seems to be running amok and out of control. . . . This agency right now is the biggest threat to personal liberty in the country.” (The Defense Department is an even bigger threat, with its Orwellian plan to place all of us under surveillance—more on that in a later column.)
One sign of the growing fear of losing our Bill of Rights protections against an out-of-control government came from the heartland. On September 8 of this year, the Journal Gazette, a daily newspaper in Fort Wayne, Indiana, published a full-page, five-column editorial—its first such broadside in nearly 20 years. The headline was “Attacks on Liberty”: “In the name of national security, President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and even Congress have pulled strand after strand out of the constitutional fabric that distinguishes the United States from other nations. . . .
“Actions taken over the past year are eerily reminiscent of tyranny portrayed in the most nightmarish works of fiction. The power to demand reading lists from libraries could have been drawn from the pages of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. . . . The sudden suspension of due process for immigrants rounded up into jails is familiar to readers of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.”
But what is most encouraging is the continued growth in cities and towns throughout the nation of Bill of Rights Defense Committees or their equivalents, a number of which are working with ACLU affiliates. The first BORDC, as reported here, was formed in February this year in Northampton, Massachusetts, when about 300 doctors, nurses, lawyers, students, teachers, and retirees formed a group to protect the citizens of that town from the USA Patriot Act and the subsequent unilateral attacks on our liberties by John Ashcroft.
After the Northampton city council unanimously passed in May a resolution officially supporting the protests of the BORDC, other towns and cities learned how to organize similar committees through the Northampton group’s Web site: www.bordc.org.
Fourteen town or city councils—from Takoma Park, Maryland, and Alachua County, Florida, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Berkeley, California—have now passed, sometimes unanimously, similar resolutions originated by local BORDC organizations. Other proposals are pending before local government bodies in 40 more cities and towns, in 24 states. One BORDC is in formation in New York City.
Next week: The details of some of these resolutions that involve city and state police and local members of Congress. The roots of the Bill of Rights Defense Committees, it is important to remember, are in the pre-revolutionary committees of correspondence, initiated by Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty in Boston in 1754.
In 1805, in Boston, there was published Mercy Otis Warren’s History of the Rise and Progress and Termination of the American Revolution. A historian, playwright, and political pamphleteer, she wrote in this, her major work: “Perhaps no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies, and the final acquisition of independence, as the establishment of committees of correspondence. This supported a chain of communication from New Hampshire to Georgia that produced unanimity and energy throughout the continent.” Sam Adams and other patriots continuously spread the news of attacks on the liberties of these new Americans by the King, his ministers, and his governors and officers in the colonies.
These committees, as Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once told me, were a precipitating cause of the American Revolution. Yet John Ashcroft accuses his critics—among the most active of which are the Bill of Rights Defense Committees—of “capitulating” to the enemy. More Americans are coming to agree with Dick Armey that Ashcroft’s Justice Department “is the biggest threat to personal liberty in the country.” Who, then, are the American patriots now?