Without Protest, Americans Giving Up Freedom

Glen T. Martin

(Published in the Roanoke Times Newspaper, 2 January 2003.  Received the Press Action award as one of the best ten commentaries of 2003.)

In Nazi Germany at this time of year, people freely shopped in large department stores for gifts for family and friends. The streets were full of traffic. It was “business as usual” for most of the citizens. While in the colonial states conquered by the Nazis, and in the concentrations camps for Jews, Gays, and Communists, life was a living nightmare of dehumanization and human rights violations.

In the United States today, people freely shop in large department stores for gifts, and the streets are full of traffic. While in our most recent victim states of Afghanistan, Iraq under murderous sanctions, Argentina after engineering its economic collapse, and Columbia under U.S. military aid for repression, life is a living nightmare of dehumanization and human rights violations.

But what once separated the U.S. from Nazi Germany was the protection of civil liberties for American citizens. People of Germany had no rights and did not care. Those few that did care were so terrified of their government that they did not dare to speak out. Those that did speak out were declared “enemy agents” and sent to concentration camps. Today, people of the U.S. have given up their rights through the “Patriot Act,” the “Homeland Security Act,” and the Pentagon�s new system of “Total Information Awareness.”

The astonishing thing about this “land of the free” is that most Americans now have no effective rights and do not care. As long as they are free to shop in department stores, and have traffic in the streets (with automobiles burning oil stolen from dying Iraqi children), they do not care. And to a greater degree every day, those few who do care about our liberties and rights are too terrified of our government to speak out.

The so-called “Patriot Act” expanded our government�s secret search and wiretapping powers enormously. It empowered racial profiling as a recognized police practice and allowed broad sweeps of people of Middle Eastern or Asian origin. It effectively abolished immigrants� rights, allowing non-citizens to be held in secret locations on secret “evidence,” without right to an attorney, for as long as the government wishes. The government now has the power to enter your home or your computer and secretly record whatever they find without ever having to notify you. They do not even have to obtain a warrant from a publicly accountable judge showing reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.

Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold spoke the following words 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! But that wouldn’t be a country in which we would want to live.”

But today, it has gotten worse with the passage of the “Homeland Security Act.” Notice that these titles, “Patriot” and “Homeland,” sound very much like the language of the Nazis. A common slogan of the Nazi regime was “the highest freedom is a noble slavery of the heart.” People are free, the slogan meant, when they have enslaved their hearts to the “homeland” in absolute obedience to their government. “Deuchland, Deuchland, ueber alles!” they shouted. Blind loyalty, patriotism, and emotion must triumph over liberty, reason and sound judgment.

Under the U.S. Homeland Security Act (our rights again given away freely by a bi-partisan Congress), twenty-two U.S. agencies are combined in order to achieve “total information awareness” on every American citizen. The government will soon be amassing a file on every American that includes every magazine subscription, credit card purchase, web site you visit, your medical records, library records, bank deposits or withdrawals, every airline purchase you make, as well as your judicial, divorce records, and so on. This will be recorded in a central data base, not by a publicly accountable authority, but by the Pentagon, which already operates in total secrecy from the American public.

Government intimidation for political reasons is real and it has begun. Our government is already using their secret databases to harass Americans. Political activists checking in at airports at the airline desk have had their names come up from a secret government list as “flight risks.” They and their luggage have been super-searched to the point where they are made to miss their flights, and then released to fly. Obviously if they were really “flight risks,” they would not be allowed to fly. Attorneys have found that their attorney-client privilege has all but disappeared. The government has even placed hidden cameras in prisons to record attorney discussions with their clients. The government has begun harassing people maintaining web sites they consider politically objectionable.

The Justice Department announced a plan to use its new found power to designate U.S. Citizens as “enemy combatants” to place such people in concentration camps. Declaring them “enemy combatants” would strip them of their constitutional rights, their access to the courts, and allow the government to indefinitely hold them without trial. This is identical in purpose to some of the Nazi concentration camps.

Do we citizens care at all about the future of our children or the plight of the millions of citizens in this country of Arab descent, or those who nonviolently oppose government policy? We have repeated for so long the slogan “it can�t happen here.” But the darkness and terror of totalitarianism is coming rapidly. Do we have the courage and integrity to speak out now before it is too late? Or will we continue to freely shop in our large department stores for gifts for family and friends � like they did in Nazi Germany.