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5 years later, we must reflect on our freedoms

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center executive director

Five years after the 9/11 tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the United States remains firmly embedded — to use a now-common term — in the war on terror, from Iraq to Afghanistan, from metal detectors and security lines at airports to the pages and screens of the nation’s news media.

A thought as flags today fly at half-staff in memory of the 3,000 who died five years ago: We also mark today a renewed, five-year debate among Americans over just how free our nation ought to be — or as some would phrase it, How free can it afford to be?

The questions in this national conversation on freedom and survival confront us — and the First Amendment — directly:

  • How much free speech should be permitted?
  • When, if ever, is dissent synonymous with disloyalty?
  • When is the right to assemble freely subservient to the need to protect our fellow citizens from harm — and who decides when that need predominates?
  • How much freedom should a free press have to probe into the conduct and practices of a government at war?
  • When does public protest on public policy have the right to invade the privacy — the private grief — of a family that has lost a loved one in combat?
  • All of those questions and more about our basic character as a free people have confronted this nation before in time of war. Presidents and politicians of all parties have responded by suspension of various civil liberties — from the new nation’s Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War to the 20th century’s imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent in World War II.

    Recall those first days and weeks after the attacks in New York, Washington and the airliner crashing to earth in Pennsylvania.

    Terror pervaded America. Travelers stayed home. High-rise buildings emptied “voluntarily” in cities remote from the original targets on rumors of hijacked airplanes. Those with even a vaguely “Middle Eastern appearance” could inspire panic simply by leaving their seat on an airplane or train.

    The First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition took a direct hit in public opinion: A 2002 First Amendment Center national poll released around July 4 showed about half of adult Americans surveyed thought the First Amendment “went too far” in the rights it guarantees.

    Pundits and politicians openly wondered about whether the land of the free was “too free” and thus too open to exploitation or attack by our enemies.

    It was no laughing matter: In March 2002, the First Amendment Center found that among U.S. adults, 39% of those surveyed said they favored government restrictions on public performances of comedy routines that might make light of or trivialize tragedies like the World Trade Center attacks or the Oklahoma City bombing.

    Now, five years later, there have been news reports of secret detainee prisons maintained by the CIA, of prisoner abuses and of covert surveillance initiatives by the administration. We know of those incidents and programs because of what once might have been accepted as the products of a “watchdog” press.

    But in 2006, some of those reports, particularly by The New York Times, have been greeted with cries of “treason” — and the open threat of using, for the first time, the 1917 Espionage Act against journalists for receiving and publishing leaked information.

    The ability to disagree with publicly or to protest government policies is seen as an American virtue — except in time of war. Vietnam protesters often faced public scorn and occasionally arrest. But a group that has in recent years targeted funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as a way of calling public attention to their anti-gay beliefs has spurred a rash of legislation to criminalize their activities.

    Those opposed to the administration’s policies in Southeast Asia in the 1960s were told by some, “America: Love it or leave it!” But critics of the military conflicts today are accused of being appeasers, a bitter tag taken from the World War II era, or of being cowards who would “cut and run.”

    As a people, we have had our disagreements over policy since the 1960s, on issues from taxes to health care to abortion — even impeachment proceedings against a president. But not since the Vietnam era, it seems to me, have we been a nation so divided over our national priorities — and perhaps also so divided over the value and application of our basic freedoms.

    How we respond in the long term to those 3,000 tragic deaths — and to our national soul-searching about our fundamental liberties — will be the nation’s ultimate legacy from Sept. 11, 2001.

    Comment? E-mail me.

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