05/12/2005 05:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Eyes Wide Shut

Throughout American history, in time of war, the United States has repeatedly overreacted to the fears and anxieties of the moment and needlessly violated individual liberties. In some sense, of course, this is predictable. War generates strong emotions, and it is natural to want to lash out at those suspected of disloyalty or of "aiding and abetting the enemy." Moreover, in time of national crisis, cynical politicians have often exploited the opportunity for partisan political gain. Even in wartime, perhaps especially in wartime, caution, skepticism and self-restraint are essential qualities of a well-functioning democracy.

Throughout our history, Americans have sadly wondered how their predecessors could have sat silently by while grave injustices were inflicted in their name. This pattern has been with us from the very beginning, and reaches as far back as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. It continued unbroken through the 20th century. During World War I, for example, the federal government made it a crime for any person to criticize the war, the draft, the president, the Constitution, the flag, or the military of the United States. Thousands of individuals were prosecuted and convicted for doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights, and they were routinely sentenced to prison terms ranging from ten to twenty years. Many others were simply deported. In later years, Americans came to regret these excesses and wondered how they could have failed to recognize and protest the injustice of these actions.

During World War II, the United States interned 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry for no reason other than racial hostility. Two-thirds of those interned were American citizens. Men, women, and children were rounded-up and shipped to concentration camps. They were held behind barbed wire and guarded by military police, even though there was no evidence that they were guilty of any disloyal acts or in any way dangerous to the nation. Again, Americans sat silently by. Again, Americans asked after the fact how they could not have seen the profound injustice of this action.

During the height of the Cold War, thousands of Americans were prosecuted, persecuted, blacklisted, humiliated, and harassed because of their political beliefs and associations. Fear ran rampant through the nation and manipulative politicians like Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon used the Red card to gain political leverage and power. Again, Americans remained silent. Only later, after the fury had run its course, did they acknowledge and seek to redress the terrible excesses of this era.

I often ask my students whether there is a moral equivalent of these actions today. Is there anything our nation is doing in the "war on terrorism" that should call forth an outraged response. Is our government taking any actions in the "war on terrorism" with respect to which our children or our children's children will ask, "How could you have said nothing?"

The answer I most often receive is "torture." The United States is using torture either directly or indirectly by rendition that clearly violates basic human rights and civilized standards of decency. For the most part, though, Americans prefer not to think about it. As in the past, we have once again shut our eyes to our government's worst excesses.

The United States is a self-governing society. In our system, "we the people" are not the subjects, but the governors. It is not only our right, but our responsibility, to hold our leaders accountable when they act in ways that are inconsistent with our nation's highest aspirations. Acquiescence is not a proper response to the violation of individual rights. When will we learn?