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The Assault on Civil Liberties Continues

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With good reason, civil libertarians called foul upon learning that the president has authorized the arrest and indefinite detention of persons, including U.S. citizens, suspected of terrorism-related activity. This is in addition to the administration's recent decision to loosen the restrictions on the massive data-mining operation that is being undertaken by the large complex of government agencies engaged in counter-terrorism activities. They have access to huge databases, such as our credit card records, and can retain these files for five years. Then, there is the matter of the New York Police Department's unchecked surveillance of Muslim individuals, mosques, schools, clubs, and other gathering places throughout the Northeast, including on such university campuses as Yale and Rutgers. Much of this NYPD activity has had the active support of the CIA.

Such assaults on our constitutional protections are not new. They have been a recurring phenomenon for at least the last hundred years. For example, President Woodrow Wilson, who had just won re-election in 1916 on a platform that included his record of having kept America out of World War I, signed a Declaration of War in early 1917. This was quickly followed by legislation imposing unprecedented and draconian penalties on anyone opposing the war, the draft, or virtually any act that could be construed as unpatriotic. Having declared war in order to Save the World for Democracy, he then signed and vigorously supported laws that obliterated liberty at home. These were the so-called Espionage Act of June 15, and the Trading With the Enemy Act of October 6, 1917, as well as the May 16, 1918 Amendment to the Espionage Act, that became known as the Sedition Act.

Many people of conscience, as well as countless others who were likely innocent of any crime, were to fall victim to these highly punitive measures. People on the Left of the political spectrum were especially vulnerable, on account of their supposed insufficient patriotism. For example, Socialist and Labor leader Eugene Debs served a ten-year prison term for his antiwar activities and a hundred or so members of the International Workers of the World were given sentences ranging up to 20 years and the fines imposed on them totaled more than two-and-a-half million dollars.

With the end of the War in 1918, punitive action that had been focused on those judged to be unpatriotic was redirected at any person, organization, or idea that sounded foreign. On November 8, 1919, the New York State Legislature's Lusk Committee mobilized hundreds of law enforcement officers who rounded up more than a thousand supposed Reds in New York City, many of whom were deported to Russia, without due process. More than 3,000 others would later face deportation. This was followed by the infamous Palmer Raids. U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ordered the arrest and indictment of over 5,000 suspected radicals in coordinated raids across the country on January 1st and 2nd, 1920. Of the thousands who were arrested and charged, only about 300 were convicted. However, the impact of these abusive government actions on the lives of the blameless majority is incalculable.

The national anxiety about Reds that motivated punitive actions in the 1920s reemerged during the Great Depression and the run-up to World War II, fuelling charges of Communist infiltration of key government institutions, including the White House. In order to weed out these potential traitors, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by Representative Martin Dies, set to work. The Committee soon found a self-proclaimed expert on Communists and other radicals to guide their work in the person of J.B. Matthews. Having been both a moderate Socialist and a revolutionary Communist before seeing the error of his ways, he now placed his inside knowledge at the service of the Committee. Matthews's primary contributions to the HCUA were his copious files of organizational mailing lists and letterheads. These provided a rich source of suspects, ranging from the plausible to the highly improbable, as well as the clearly ridiculous. For example, the Camp Fire Girls were accused of being an indoctrinating tool of the Left while ostensibly promoting international understanding. Matthews gained some unwelcome fame when he testified to the Committee that his files revealed that Shirley Temple might have inadvertently aided the Communist cause by communicating with the Left-leaning French newspaper, Ce Soir. Critics of the Committee, including some leading Roosevelt Administration officials, made hay of this accusation. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins commented that luckily the child actor was American-born or Dies and his allies would be pressing for her deportation.

Not so amusing to Perkins and other New Dealers, including Franklin Roosevelt himself, were the Committee's sustained attacks on them, including an attempt, in January 1939, to have Perkins impeached for failing to root out Communists in the Labor movement. Perkins and her colleagues survived the Committee's attacks. Much less fortunate were the countless individuals whose names appeared in Matthews's files or other lists that came to the Committee's attention. The damage done to their lives was irreparable. While a few might have been Communists, the great majority was obviously not and presented no threat to the country's security. The tactics used against them -- guilt by association and the smear -- would be dusted off and perfected by Senator Joseph McCarthy to identify suspected Communists in government, Hollywood, the universities, and even the Army, in the 1950s.

Despite the Roosevelt administration's outrage at the behavior of the Dies Committee, within a couple of years, the president had ordered the removal of all persons of Japanese descent, including American citizens, from their homes on the West Coast and had them placed in internment camps for the duration of World War II. This order violated the rights and ruined the lives of thousands of innocent people -- once again, in the name of national security.

Unfortunately, we are, once again, allowing concerns over national security to jeopardize our supposedly inalienable rights. To those who think that only terrorists and criminals need fear their government, the historical evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. When we set aside the Bill of Rights for any reason or for any group, we put all of us at risk and only have ourselves to blame if we fail to take corrective action.