Push Has Just Come to Shove: What’s Next in the Struggle for Democracy?

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Regardless of how the current geopolitical crisis plays out, we will all have to adjust to a new reality, one that is certain to affect us profoundly and indefinitely. Some aspects of this new way of life are foreseeable—higher levels of security awareness, inconvenience and anxiety—others are not. Some of these inevitable changes will create only minor annoyance; others will have more serious consequences. Conversely, some may even enrich our lives in ways we cannot now imagine.

What can we do to maintain our focus and assure the sustainability of our work on the social and economic justice issues which define our sector’s contribution to U.S. society when so many people are worried about their own and their families’ personal safety?

In this context, the current climate of national anxiety is really a test of our strength as a sector. Do we have the courage and competence to organize ourselves around critical issues of social justice in a climate of fear and self-protection?

In previous periods of political uncertainty, the sector, with few exceptions, has been unable to withstand the flag-shrouded waves of repression that targeted political dissidents or people who inspired fear because they happened to share the ethnicity of America’s enemies. The Palmer raids after World War I, the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and the FBI’s harassment of critics of the Vietnam War are some of this century’s more notorious efforts to curtail civil liberties in times of perceived national emergency.

In light of this history, I feel as much at risk in the long term from the jingoistically-titled “USA Patriot Act” as I do from Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Any movement based on hatred and nihilism is doomed to eventual failure, but when a piece of legislation that has far-reaching police-state implications can pass the U.S. Senate 98-1 after just three hours of debate, we all need to sit up and take notice. In case you missed it, the new law provides for broadly defined and greatly expanded governmental surveillance powers—via search warrants, wiretaps, subpoenas and other means—while at the same time greatly reducing the safeguards against abuse of that authority. And those who believe that the presence of limited “sunset” provisions in the law is sufficient protection against abuse are engaging in wishful thinking.

The recent actions of Congress bring to mind the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which Lyndon Johnson used to greatly expand the Vietnam War. In that case, the Senate, by a vote of 98-2, took at face value the government’s assertion—later shown to be false—of unprovoked attacks on a U.S. destroyer and authorized the President to take “all necessary measures” to defend U.S. forces and “prevent further aggression.” Many senators later regretted their haste in approving such a broad mandate; I expect in the months and years to come, we will once again hear senators complaining that they were misled about the nature and degree of the domestic threat which led to their precipitous vote. The late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, in a 1987 speech on this subject, said that one lesson we should learn from our history is that perceived threats to national security during times of crisis “are often overblown and factually unfounded.” He noted that after each perceived crisis, we have realized that the abrogation of civil liberties was unnecessary, yet we repeat the error when the next crisis arises.

I am not suggesting that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were anything other than the horrendously real products of a malevolent spirit. I am saying that we must be vigilant to assure that the actions we take in the name of trying to assure our future security do not instead undermine it further.

Our elected leaders may have run for cover, and the mass media, ever mindful of which way the wind is blowing, has been fearful of being branded as unpatriotic, but one nonprofit that has not shirked its responsibility or compromised its mission is the American Civil Liberties Union (www.aclu.org). The ACLU says the USA Patriot Act threatens to bring us to “a new age of investigation of Americans based on their political activities.”  The Electronic Frontiers Foundation (www.eff.org), in an exhaustive analysis of the legislation, concludes that “[t]he civil liberties of ordinary Americans have taken a tremendous blow with this law.”

For many nonprofits, especially those serving immigrant groups or advocating for progressive social policies, this legislation will likely affect their constituents directly or indirectly. Placing the imprimatur of Congressional and Presidential approval on an act legitimizing intolerance for dissent and the broad use of secret police-type powers will inevitably lead to abuses of authority on a national scale. In fact, this scenario is already unfolding, with the proposed use of military tribunals, the secret detention of over 1,200 people, and Attorney General Ashcroft’s “emergency rule” authorizing expanded government monitoring of conversations between people in custody and their attorneys, a move which the ACLU rightly called a “terrifying precedent.”

It is precisely under these conditions that we in the civil sector need to speak up loudest. As Justice Brennan put it 15 years ago, a justice system that can sustain “the supremacy of civil liberties over exaggerated claims of national security only in times of peace is, of course, useless at the moment that civil liberties are most in danger.”  Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, puts it this way:  “[I]t’s in moments of crisis like this, in times of a national security threat, that our voice is the most unpopular and also the most important. It’s easy to promote human rights when nothing is at stake.”

OK, this is the place where you ask, “What do expect me to do?”

I believe a proactive response is called for. In an interview in this magazine last year, economist Jeremy Rifkin argued that we should not accept the notion of our sector as “marginalized as if it deserves last place in our social priorities.” Rifkin says we need to stop thinking of ourselves as powerless and dependent on philanthropy and instead claim our rightful, and powerful identity as the primary sector in this country responsible for shaping and transmitting its values, culture and beliefs (Nonprofit Quarterly, Feb. 2001).

Let’s begin with the obvious: thinking nationally and acting locally. The first step is to inform yourself about the provisions of this law and the critiques developed by the ACLU, EFF and other civil libertarians. Beyond this, you can remain vigilant on the local implementation of these provisions by law enforcement and other public institutions, raising your concerns with elected representatives, national, state and local. Engaging in on-going critical dialogue with staff, board members, constituents, and the larger community is an excellent way of squelching unfounded rumors and restoring a sense of power and agency. Be reminded that Adolph Hitler once said that most people “[w]ill more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one,” so making the case with local media will also involve challenging each instance of biased and distorted reporting. Finally, exercise your remaining first amendment rights by encouraging and participating in public protest actions.

Jonathan Spack is executive director of Third Sector New England.