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Discussion: Post-9/11 Civil Liberties in American Culture

posted on September 11, 2006

One Iowan died in the early days of Afghanistan. Thirty one have since died in Iraq. There is rising sentiment to disengage from the world in general, if not outright xenophobia. Additionally, Americans seem more willing to curb their own liberties to make themselves more secure from what they view as the world’s darker forces.

Barbara Mack is a journalism professor at Iowa State University and an attorney who has done considerable work on constitutional issues.

Are Americans willing to give up some of their perhaps fundamental civil rights in order to deal with the threat that we face?

Mack: No question about it, at least according to last week's ABC news poll, which found that 65 percent of Americans asked "would you be willing to give up some of your civil liberties in order to feel more secure," said, yes. We have 65 percent of our population saying I'd be willing to maybe relax issues on search and searching my house, searching my computer record if I were to feel more secure.

Mundt: And that is, I suppose, the nub of the question, if in fact we feel more secure because of the measures that the government is using.

Mack: Indeed. And it's a real question as to exactly how much more secure we really are, but most people are feeling at least somewhat more secure, again according to same poll, where about 60 percent of them said they feel at least a little more secure since 9/11, a little more protected from terrorist attacks.

Mundt: In previous wars, we have a whole history of situations, civil war, the writ of habeas corpus, situations where certain civil liberties were withdrawn. But then at the conclusion of the war, of course, those civil liberties largely returned. This war we are told has no end. How do we go about ensuring that the civil rights we may grant back to the government temporarily come back to us further down the line, maybe not so much further than soon?

Mack: I think that's going to be a really tough question. It's probably the toughest question we're going to face. We won't know when we've won this war.

Indeed what we're really talking about here is not the Civil War, with a beginning and an end and General Lee's surrender. We aren't talking about World War II where we can defeat Japan and release the Japanese Americans who were interned rightfully or wrongly in concentration camps inside their own borders. We won't know.

We won't be able to explain to the government or tell the government when it's time to give us back those liberties because this is, in all likelihood, a war without end.

Mundt: Is there even a venue to do that outside of the judicial system to have -- it's not a water cooler conversation, I don't think, in America. Is there a place to have a conversation about our civil liberties and whether we think that we should have them back?

Mack: I think the good thing to come out of 9/11, if there can be good to come out of 9/11, is that more people are talking about getting civil liberties back, talking about what that means, and talking to their congress -- congressional representatives, their senators, and saying we're concerned that the government thinks it's doing wire taps of our telephones without getting search warrants, we're concerned that government is looking at our library records without any kind of probable cause.

This is going to be tough citizenship. This is not going to be an easy discussion to have, and it may be the toughest discussion we have to have in the next decade.

Mundt: If you were to look at how people feel about government today and their trust in government, which many polls show is at a very low level, their trust in the current administration, is that in part a calculation people are making based on how they feel about their civil liberties.

Mack: I think it is in part a calculation based on civil liberties. I think it looks at government effectiveness: If we had been successful in restoring democracy to Afghanistan; if we had been successful in capturing Osama bin Laden; if we'd been more successful in responding even to domestic challenges like Hurricane Katrina as a government, I think people would be more -- more eager to give government even more of their civil liberties.

Our failure in those regards has caused people to question exactly what we're giving up and what is the cost benefit ratio.

Mundt: I want to open up this question to all three of our panelists. Miriam, have you thought about your own feelings on civil liberties and the ways in which some of them have been taken back by the government to fight the war on terror? I guess the issue of material witnesses, for instance.

Amer: Absolutely. Civil liberties, if you curb them, where does it stop? You know, can you do it with one group of the population and not with another? I mean the 13th and 14th Amendments has outlined that that can't happen.

But with the way that the government is acting nowadays, they're making it a very big reality, a very real situation where certain groups are, number one, profiled, number two, pulled aside on the streets and said you can't go in there, you can't do this, you can't fly because of who you are and what your name is. I don't think that that is fair. I don't think it's legal. And I don't think it should be ethical.

Wright: I think in the same way, when you really look at the dichotomy that's come into being in the last few years, where law enforcement holds that you must have the Patriot Act, you must have it even stronger versus civil liberties says look what you're taking away, the law enforcement and others who are in favor of the Patriot Act and all of the various kinds of secrecy that goes on with it.

And I think that's one of the major issues we haven't really addressed is secrecy and how to beat that. You're unpatriotic if you're opposed to it.

Now, we've always had that kind of thing in the United States; if you were opposed to what the government was trying to do, you were unpatriotic. That seems a long stronger now than it has ever been, and there doesn't seem to be any backing down.

Well, we've had more cultural backing. We've had more society coming together as a group. We've not seen really much of a flaw here.

And I think over in Barbara's area, having practiced quite a bit of journalistic law, we're seeing a lot of questions asked of certain major news sources about exactly what kind of investigation they can do and how they can go about informing the United States citizenry about what's happening.

Mundt: What's the impact on society if it becomes harder for anyone to have a view that is opposing the United States government?

Wright: I think what happens is that the society begins to drift away, and we become almost -- we've had periods of history that have been similar. In Iowa during World War I, we had a position in which Germans basically had to do things to prove that they were loyal citizens. I think the next step is perhaps to prove you're a citizen once more. We've not reached that point.

But Barbara addressed the issue of during World War II we had imprisoned Japanese Americans throughout all of the Western part of the United States. The next step, the next step, the next step. This is always there.

It's not that many years ago that we placed people in prison simply because of knowledge they had, the McCarthy era, and so forth. These are not old issues. These are new issues that are just given a new package.

Mundt: Barbara Mack, let me ask you, do you think that congress will work to chop away at some of the patriotic act over the next few years, to restore some of the rights?

Mack: I think it's going to be very, very hard. This is the first time in recent history where we've actually restructured the federal government to create a new homeland security agency. And Congress is going to be hard pressed to try to undo the elements in the Patriot Act that are really depriving us of civil liberties unless the American people force them to.

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