The challenge of defending freedom

Today’s blog entry is an opportunity to reflect on where we are five years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Use the comments section as a place for your own reflections. Here are a few of mine.

Last night on the Discovery Channel, Ted Koppel’s special The Price of Security brought together on odd confluence: ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and former Secretary of Homeland Security and former PA Governor Tom Ridge in agreement. Governor Ridge and Anthony echoed a sentiment that has been expressed by others from across the political board. We need to take a hard look at who we are. Governor Ridge talked about friends from overseas who hold a mirror and ask him, “Is this who you are?”

That’s where we are five years after that terrible day. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask ourselves the hard questions, and our answers shouldn’t be the result of being afraid.

Are the people free when the FBI can conduct a search without showing “probable cause,” as mandated in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution? Are we free when the NSA can pipe in on our phone calls and e-mails without connecting us to a terrorist group? The administration claims that they are only conducting surveillance on those who are receiving calls or making calls to terrorist groups, but who is verifying that? No one.

Are we free when political advocacy groups like PETA, Greenpeace, and the Thomas Merton Center find themselves targets of FBI surveillance?

Is this what it means to be an American?

An hour or two later they came back, checked the tautness of his chains and pushed him over on his stomach. Transfixed in his bonds, Omar toppled like a figurine. Again they left. Many hours had passed since Omar had been taken from his cell. He urinated on himself and on the floor. The MPs returned, mocked him for a while and then poured pine-oil solvent all over his body. Without altering his chains, they began dragging him by his feet through the mixture of urine and pine oil. Because his body had been so tightened, the new motion racked it. The MPs swung him around and around, the piss and solvent washing up into his face. The idea was to use him as a human mop. When the MPs felt they’d successfully pretended to soak up the liquid with his body, they uncuffed him and carried him back to his cell. He was not allowed a change of clothes for two days.
While he was at Guantanamo, Omar was beaten in the head, nearly suffocated, threatened with having his clothes taken indefinitely and, as at Bagram, lunged at by attack dogs while wearing a bag over his head. “Your life is in my hands,” an intelligence officer told him during an interrogation in the spring of 2003. During the questioning, Omar gave an answer the interrogator did not like. He spat in Omar’s face, tore out some of his hair and threatened to send him to Israel, Egypt, Jordan or Syria – places where they tortured people without constraints: very slowly, analytically removing body parts. The Egyptians, the interrogator told Omar, would hand him to Asfyri raqm tisa – Soldier Number Nine. Soldier Number Nine, the interrogator explained, was a guard who specialized in raping prisoners.

Omar’s chair was removed. Because his hands and ankles were shackled, he fell to the floor. His interrogator told him to get up. Standing up was hard, because he could not use his hands. When he did, his interrogator told him to sit down again. When he sat, the interrogator told him to stand again. He refused. The interrogator called two guards into the room, who grabbed Omar by the neck and arms, lifted him into the air and dropped him onto the floor. The interrogator told them to do it again – and again and again and again. Then he said he was locking Omar’s case file in a safe: Omar would spend the rest of his life in a cell at Guantanamo Bay.
(“The Unending Torture of Omar Khadr,” Rolling Stone, August 24, 2006)

And how would we respond if our service men and women were treated this way by a foreign government or entity?

Choosing between being secure or being free is a false choice. We can be both. No country can guarantee that a terrorist attack will never happen on its territory. China is a perfect example. Abusing civil rights and human rights through torture and a kangaroo court system is the norm for the PRC, but it still has dealt with violent attacks from domestic entities.

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Patriot News, Dr. Matthew Woessner from Penn State-Harrisburg suggested that freedom needs to be restricted during this time of “war” and went on to compare the current struggle to World War II and the Cold War. Dr. Woessner justifies this restriction because it has happened during most conflicts in our nation’s history.

But WWII ended in three years and eight months. General Anthony Zinni (ret.) stated last night on Koppel’s program that those at Central Command consider the current struggle as “the long war” and expect it to last “a generation.” Does that mean that freedom will be restricted for decades?

Dr. Woessner’s comparison to the Cold War may, in fact, be appropriate. Like the Cold War, the current struggle is between opposing ideologies with occasional outbursts of violence, largely in small countries. The Communists were as feared and as hated as the terrorists. Thousands of Soviet nukes were pointed directly at us, and we could have been obliterated literally at any minute.

But we didn’t detain Communists indefinitely throughout the time of the Cold War. We didn’t torture Communists. And American presidents from Truman to George H. W. Bush did not shatter the Bill of Rights to defend us from Communists (for the most part). The abuses of freedom that did occur- the McCarthy era, COINTELPRO- were recognized quickly as abuses, not necessities in a time of war.

If anything, the Cold War proved that we can be both safe and free, and there is no reason why we cannot be both safe and free today.

September 11, 2001, is a day we will all remember, and while we’re remembering, we should remember what makes this country great. Let us pay homage today to those who lost their lives five years ago. May their deaths not signal the beginning of the end of American freedom.

Andy in Harrisburg

ACLU: Upholding freedom in challenging times

Philadelphia Inquirer: Remember 9/12?

NY Times: 9/11/06

Countdown with Keith Olbermann: This hole in the ground

10 thoughts on “The challenge of defending freedom

  1. Our service men and women have been treated a LOT worse. For some reason the U.S. is the only one brought to task. Have Vietnam or North Korea been brought to task for the Americans who died and disappeared in their custody? No. What about our soldiers who have been tortured and slaughtered by the Taliban and Al Qaeda? Terrorists don’t subscribe to the Geneva Convention, and never will. That are military and intelligence services are held to such a ridiculous degree of accountability while are enemy is not is sheer LUNACY! I don’t care if the government listens to every call I make for the rest of my life. I HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE. With friends like the ACLU, New York Times, and other ultra liberal media types who needs enemies?!?

  2. That may be, the point isn’t what other people/countries do or get away with. For me, and I think for many others, it’s about what MY country does. I think we should be above this kind of thing. Torture, indefinition detention, kidnapping – these aren’t what I learned about in my American civics class. I would hope we would aspire to be a model for other countries – not stoop to the lowest level.

    Sara in Philly

  3. To Sara: In response to your comment, what is learned in a classroom and what is reality are not even closely related. It is wishful thinking to believe that Americans are or have always been benevolent when dealing with captured “enemies”, both in wartime and in peacetime (or cold wars). Take everything you learned in civics class and toss it, because it’s only theory, a guide, an ideal, and nothing more. Politics and its politicians, police and the military (also politicized), these groups can be truly nasty when they want or need to be–we all know this. Real life simply does not work in a classroom environment which espouses “ideal” scenarios (for there are no such things), and this is true for a majority of disciplines, including benign things such as mechanical engineering. Theory in a class or book is a great starting point, but in practice, engineers learn that “tweaks” must be made to the design. This analogy, I believe, conicides perfectly with how ALL governments actually deal with suspected criminals, enemies of the state, terrorists, etc. The difference today is that people are far more aware of abuses due to increasing technological advances in disseminating information quickly. That isn’t to say torture is necessary; it is only saying that you cannot apply textbook and classroom studies to real life and expect a reasonable comparison. Your hope for America’s aspirations, however, are noble and commendable. It’s human nature that’s getting in the way of acheiving these lofty ideals, I fear. I wish it weren’t so… but history is long with terrible things and even worse people. There is also a much lower level that can be stooped to… we are not quite there yet, and we should be honest about that.

    To Andy: Nice job being blatantly and unnecessarily sensational with your Rolling Stone Magazine excerpt, especially by asking the question “Is this what it means to be American?”

    Of course it doesn’t. Indeed, the alleged treatment of Omar and similar treatments around the world doesn’t say anything about any citizen of any country, including China or America. To take the actions of individuals and underscore it under “American citizen” is inaccurate, since it falsely labels it as ALL Americans, or at the very least CONDONED by all Americans; and precisely in the same way to label ALL Muslims as terroists, or ALL Muslim-majority goveernments as supporting terrorism. People–individuals, really–of all countries do very bad things to other people (of all countries). Fact of life. The American Military is not exempt from having bad people. The American government is not exempt from having bad people. Ideally, bad people wouldn’t be in these positions, but since when did we live in an ideal world? We are only lucky that we can actually peacefully vote out those bad people.

    Anyway, you couldn’t have picked a worse day to spout this crap. Not only is it Sept 11, but it’s also Patriot’s day. On days such as today, it’s in good taste to be Pro-American, not Anti-American under a thinly-veiled guise of being concerned about freedom (something I am deeply concerned about and wish you would have properly explored). But this post is distasteful and disrespectful to begin with, and by the end it almost improved by citing examples, but alas it failed to overcome the bias inherent at the beginning. I would hope that in the future you would consider your words more carefully if you hope to persuade rather than raise the ire of free-thinking individuals.

    And so that you know, I’m not conservative, or liberal, or independent, nor do I belong to any political affiliation. I’m just me, an ordinary American citizen, capable of thinking for myself without feeling the need to toe the party line or align myself with any particular “just” cause.

    If you want to defend freedom, consider offering constructive advice at improving the situation (which is admittedly dire and getting worse) rather than simply pointing out America’s worst moments. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t know about these things, it’s simply a matter of “don’t bitch about something unless you have a solution.” I don’t see any solutions presented here in the challenge of defending freedom. All I see is sniping for no good reason. It would be nice, for once, to foster solidarity rather than separatism… wouldn’t it? Would it have killed you to point out something we are presently doing that is good? (Well, good is a matter of opinion these days… but surely there is good somewhere; maybe it’s a hard to see….)

    Anyway, I’d like to see a comparison of Omar’s treatment to what goes in American prisons, or prisons elsewhere in the world. If you ask me, Omar got off easy… And I agree with a previous comment that America military men and women have been and still are being treated worse, notwithstanding the barbarism we’ve seen televised with beheadings with both civilian and military victims, and not mercifully quick beheadings either… far, far from that. Omar’s experience was a country club, I assure you.

    Think about that, Andy. Think about how your posted excerpt as an example is divisive and not contstructive. Simply, if you ever hope to win over the minds of most Americans, you’re going to need to find something that brings us all together first and foremost and strengthen it, not systematically break down the morale of ordinary citizens. Just planting seeds, really… something to consider…

  4. To Bidge:

    What does it mean to be “Pro-American”? Does it mean to blindly follow the leadership that’s destroying our country? Does it mean overlooking what’s being done in the name of freedom?

    If our leaders are breaking the law, if our leaders are committing atrocities, it seems to me that being “Pro-American” means calling them to task, regardless of the day.

    The sad point is that, right now, our citizens are dying in Iraq for *no* reason related to the 9/11 attacks. None. I’m not dishonoring the soldiers. I respect and commend them for doing their duty.

    I’m just saying that we need to think and act, not accept and let our government destroy our country.

    It would be sad if the 3000 people killed in the 9/11 attacks weren’t the worst outcome of the attacks.

    The worst would be if being an American comes to mean condoning torture, breaking international laws, and willingly giving up the very liberties our soldiers have fought for so willingly.

  5. Bidge, first, if what we learn in civics class is not reality, then why bother teaching it?

    As Sara pointed out and as I said in the original post, this isn’t about the terrorists and other countries and how they treat people. It’s about us. Who are we? That is the question that both Tom Ridge and Anthony Romero asked on the Koppel show. In fact, Steve, Ridge said he’s had “too many intelligent, thoughtful people” tell him that they have nothing to hide, implying that it is the wrong mentality to take.

    We shouldn’t be afraid to ask ourselves who we are, whether it’s September 11 or March 27. It is especially relevant to talk about it on 9/11 since it is that date from which the shaking of our foundation stems.

    The Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, national talk show host Ed Schultz, national ACLU, Ted Koppel, and numerous guests on the Koppel show, including former government officials and retired military officials, all in the last few days questioned things we’ve done in the five years since 9/11/01, so I think I can safely say that I’m in good company in raising these questions, even around this time.

    You criticize me for raising these questions at this time but don’t criticize the PSU prof for suggesting on September 10 that we restrict rights. So those who think like him get a free pass around 9/11 and those of us who disagree with him should just shut up. Is that what you’re suggesting, Bidge?

    Solutions? Here:

    1. Send home all of the innocent people at Guantanamo. According to military reports, that is a majority of those held there. Then place those we believe are true criminals on some form of trial.

    It’s worth noting that during WWII German prisoners were held by the thousands on American soil. They had freedom of movement in the camps, more food than Americans who were rationing, were entertained with films, concerts, and sporting events. The result? Some became leaders in the new democratic West Germany. Many moved back to the United States after returning to Germany at the end of the war.

    2. Establish an independent, bipartisan select committee with subpoena power to investigate the Bush administration’s abuse of the law. If violations are found, hold the president accountable in some form.

    3. Investigate why the FBI has conducted surveillance on advocacy groups like PETA and Greenpeace. If FBI employees are abusing their positions and compromising free speech, hold them accountable.

    4. Reform the Patriot Act so that it conforms with the Fourth Amendment and restores proper checks and balances between the executive and the Congress.

    Working in this stuff almost every day, I probably make the unfair assumption that the solutions are obvious, but there are some of them, spelled out.

    The Bill of Rights is about what freedoms the people have and what limits there are on government power, e.g. “Congress shall make no law…” Some of us don’t feel we can stand by and just shut up while those precious values disappear.


  6. The original post has been updated to include links to others who in recent days have critiqued the administration’s actions in the last five years. The point? Government officials don’t get a free pass, regardless of the date.


  7. Exhale Andy.
    Reality is hard stuff to swallow-and you’re right- any day of the year.
    Following certain guidlines and treating people correctly, within the law, within the Geneva Convention -whatever- is what makes us different from terrorists.
    I don’t think we have to start beheading people to be on “equal” footing with terrorists.
    It’s a tough job, this fight for freedom, keep doing it

  8. Thanks for your reply, Andy. And thanks for meeting me halfway by posting proposed solutions.

    I see your points, and agree with some at various levels. I should point out that I do not watch television often, which precludes me from having any knowledge of the shows you mentioned; and while I’m American, I live abroad (in London) presently, so I don’t have access to the same shows. I try to keep up with various news sites, both American and British as well as a few others here and there, and of course I scour blogs, such as this one. I’m not completely out of touch, but I’m not completely in it either, which leaves me at a disadvantage perhaps.

    I don’t fault anyone for bringing up issues that are relevant, I simply think that perhaps yesterday wasn’t the best day to do it. I believe strongly that we should question government, whether Republican or Democrat controlled, at every opportunity. But I also believe that there are days when our focus should be elsewhere, just for that day. Really, for me, I would choose to bring people together on days like yesterday, rather than trying to force more wedges between us. But that’s my opinion. Clearly, many disagree, and if it’s okay with you, let’s agree to disagree on this one issue and move on.

    Solutions: Thanks for posting those. Due to time constraints, I must choose to pass on discussing them in full. Allow me to briefly summarize my opinions on each… biased of course, but you know…

    1. Don’t care. Harsh, I know, but I don’t.

    2. Great idea. Better yet, take the idea and remove the politicians from the committee and it will rock! I don’t believe there is any politician who can truly be bipartisan, since everything in politics is compromise. Put average Americans in that committee, chosen at random or lottery, like jury duty… It’s the only way, I feel, it could actually work. There is the question of security clearances to deal with, but if any Federal-level politician can get one, then most Americans should be able to as well.

    3. Don’t care. Don’t like PETA. Could care less about Greenpeace. But I do care that the FBI seems to have way too much power. So, I suppose I do care.

    4. Yes. The Patriot Act is bollocks. It was a knee-jerk reaction, drafted too quickly (the first time around) and passed by both Dems and Repubs in a difficult time. It needs reform; I agree with you wholeheartedly…

    Anyway, go on and question everything to your heart’s content. I just disagree with the day you choose and the example you used with that question preceding it. Perhaps you’re right in that every day should be treated equally. I suppose I’m just old-fashioned in some regards.

  9. The prof from Penn State has got to be among the most woolly headed academics I’ve ever heard of. Every government that ever existed has usually tried to expand their powers and authority beyond both reason and law. .And at times of war or near war, they push even harder to do so. WW II is a prime example. Yes, the government rationed assorted goods to ensure a supplies for the military, drafted nearly every able bodied male who hadn’t volunteered, and treated prisoners from the European Theatre well. (I ‘m old enough to remember German and Italian prisoners housed in Oklahoma and Texas who worked on local farms and were very, very grateful to be out of harms way.) But the US also did things that were vile such as the internment of anyone of Japanese ancestry regardless, while letting their young males go fight in Europe, clearly on the pretext they weren’t reliable against native Japanese. Any study of history reveals that most such restrictions on civil liberties were misguided at best and cruel at worst. History will likely judge Bush’s excesses mostly among the latter with a few just misguided.

    And a brief comment on “The Bidge’s” indifference to the treatment of PETA and Greenpeace, as if they were accomplices of Al-Queda. I don’t find the actions of either particularly admirable but how we treat such groups, meaning those with whom we disgree or oppose politically or strategically, says more about our society than about them. If we abuse the unpopular we’re behaving like bullies and have earned the right to be regarded as such. And that, of course, is exactly how we’re viewed by much of the world now, courtesy of Bush. He has spent much, if not all, the political capital this country earned in the last century. And it was that political capital that enabled the US to be a moral force for good in the world. Bush’s extravagance, and I’m not talking economic, has cost this country dearly and we will not begin to recover until he’s out of office, restrained by a Congress with a spine, or our government has begun to behave like what’s described in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

  10. Keanu, what it says about how government treat groups like PETA or Greenpeace is that it’s business as usual in the time-honored tradition of repressing or oppressing those who are actively seeking change, regardless if that change is for good or bad. Seriously. Every decade of American history has had various groups being investigated by someone or other, or being put down by another group who has opposing views. And this is not limited only to America, but everywhere, of course; although I fully understand that this conversation is about what America does, not others. My point is that it says nothing, really, about Americans but more about human nature. To be more specific, it’s about fear, or fear of change.

    One could argue that there are two types of people in the world:

    1. Those who embrace [or seek to make] change

    2. Those who fear change

    Anyway, it’s easy to pin everything on Bush, and I don’t believe him to a be a good President for much the same reasons you pointed out, Keanu, but the problem does not lie with Bush but with the overall corruption of ALL politicians, both Democrats and Republicans. Even a newbie pol just elected, perhaps uncorrupted, will eventually become corrupted just by doing business as usual.

    There are always “interest groups” who have loads of money, and ultimately, those groups tell the politicians how to act and vote, and thereby are controlling how things actually are. To blame a President for everything that goes wrong is moronic. Sure, Bush has made plenty of mistakes. So did Clinton. So did Bush Sr. So did Reagan, Carter, Ford, and George Washington. Remember, most every law is passed through both houses, and therefore, a President deserves 1/3 (or perhaps 1/4 if we count the Judicial branch as well) of the blame for any particular bad law that affects us and our freedom adversely.

    To clarify my “don’t care” stuff. I don’t care about any “interest group” or activist group or any group. I’m an individual with my own set of beliefs, ideals, and opinions that no one group could ever adequately cover. And if we are to be honest, besides using highly effective litigious methods to seek change, the only other viable method of change has been through the use of violence (such as the War for Independence, or the American Civil War). These days we also have very powerful media groups who seek to influence public opinion, too (the egregious use of political correctness is in part due to the media, and in part due to the increasing litigiousness of Americans). But it will always be violence that trumps all of them. Groups like PETA are irrelevant in the larger scheme–small battles won, but never the whole war. And this why I don’t care.

    And to be clearer: I do not support violence in any form; I merely recognize how things are and have always been done. To change human nature is going to require an evolutionary step or five.

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