A decade of turmoil

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 7, 2011


Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is the state's most visible champion of First Amendment rights. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, his organization backed students punished for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and opposed Governor Carcieri's push for a state-level Patriot Act.

TEN YEARS AFTER 9/11, DO MOST AMERICANS APPRECIATE THE FULL IMPACT ON THEIR CIVIL LIBERTIES? No, but that's not surprising. Unfortunately, most people don't appreciate erosion of civil liberties generally. I think it's even harder in the context of something as emotional as 9/11. People have all too often been willing to give up their freedoms under the guise of being protected by their government. The reality is that the protections are often quite illusory — they don't provide us any more security but they do take away fundamental freedoms. This is something we've seen over and over in our country's history, whether it's the so-called Palmer Raids in World War I, where anarchists and Communists were detained, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, all the abuses of civil liberties during the Cold War in the McCarthy era, the surveillance and breaking up of political activities during the Vietnam War. It's déjà vu all over again. And the really troubling aspect of the current climate is, unlike the others, we're dealing with a security threat that, by its definition, has no end. A war on terrorism is indefinite — one will never guarantee the end of terrorism.

CATALOG IT FOR US — HOW MUCH HAVE THINGS CHANGED IN THE LIFE OF THE ORDINARY AMERICAN? Well, things have changed enormously even though people hardly think about it anymore. Occasionally, they're reminded of it, such as when they go to the airport. Ten years ago, the idea of being subjected to what is essentially a virtual strip search would have been unthinkable. But the scanners at airports are just that.

We've come very close to becoming a country that requires people to carry their papers with them at all times. You need identification to get into certainly any federal building now. A number of years ago Congress passed a law known as the REAL ID Act that has not been implemented yet that requires all this rigmarole in terms of new security-conscious photo identification that everybody will need to have in order to get a driver's license, at some point in order to board a plane.

We live in a surveillance society that was also unthinkable a decade or so ago. Cameras both open and covert are everywhere. Homeland security funds for various surveillance purposes have been obtained [by] virtually every governmental jurisdiction in the state and in the country. It's just becoming something that people expect — that they are on camera almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anytime that they walk outside their home.

HAS THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION PULLED BACK ENOUGH ON THE EXCESSES OF THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION? No, hardly at all. As a candidate, Obama distanced himself from the many of the excesses of the Bush Administration, but with very few exceptions, his administration has continued to carry out those efforts. Leaving aside his attempts, ultimately unsuccessful, to close Guantanamo, if you look at his attempts to defend secrecy in the courts, it's appalling.

THERE ARE SOME WHO ARGUE THAT, IN THE FACEBOOK ERA, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PRIVACY ANYMORE. IS IT ESPECIALLY DIFFICULT, IN THAT CONTEXT, TO SUMMON PUBLIC OUTRAGE OVER POST-9/11 PRIVACY CONCERNS? Yes and no. The younger generation has very different notions of privacy than those who are older. At the same time, though, I think it's also fair to say that young people still do retain some sense of privacy, if it may be on different terms. Facebook is a good example: there are consistent complaints from the Facebook generation about how Facebook treats information on its site — the privacy controls, and how they change them without people knowing about them. There still is some appreciation for privacy.

I think the worst aspect of all this though, in terms of privacy, is we don't even realize, for the most part, how our privacy is being invaded because it's shrouded in secrecy. The surveillance we've been talking about, the use of informants by government. Every once in awhile somebody comes forward, or a lawsuit gathers information. But it's a tip of an iceberg. How much access to emails, of US citizens, does the federal government have? Everybody's in the dark.

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