America’s Vanishing Civil Liberties & The Controversy of Indefinite Detention

April 19, 2012 § 18 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

“Those who would sacrifice essential liberty to obtain security deserve neither and will lose both.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” ~Thomas Jefferson

Ironically, America’s War on Terror has become a source of terror itself. Terrorism, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is “the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.”

It is a definition upon which much depends, considering that as of December 31st 2011 the United States government has codified into law the ability to indefinitely detain US citizens suspected of terrorist involvement without trial, a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act that gives US military the power to carry out domestic anti-terrorism operations on US soil .

This effectively means that, in theory, if the US government wanted me gone, I could be taken from my home via military force and detained indefinitely. Under the 2012 provision of the National Defense Authority Act, all they would have to do is call me a terrorist suspect — no proof needed, no rights enforced — and just like that, I could disappear. Legally.

President Obama admits to having “serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists,” noting that the fact that he “supports this bill as a whole” does not mean that he “agrees with everything in it.” (Somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better.)

In the same statement, the president goes on to contradict direct lines from the controversial Act, assuring us that “administration [ …] will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law” (italics mine.) 

Apart from the fact that the president’s use of the word “interpret” acknowledges the room for flexible reading of the NDAA, and setting aside the fact that Mr. Obama has made other promises he did not keep — for instance, the termination of Guantanamo Bay  — his statement only applies to his administration.

As Senator Bernie Sanders asserts: “The legislation could give future presidents the authority to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial.”

I should note that Obama has made some effort to improve the controversial aspects of this bill, though the essential problems remain (see comments section.)

“In a country famous for the belief that one is innocent until proven guilty,” observes Alton Lu in the Huffington Post, “this is an upsetting change that is being foisted upon the American people with many unaware of what it means.” He continues:

“The Fourth Amendment grants liberty from unreasonable seizures, while the Sixth guarantees every U.S. citizen a trial in front of a jury. No matter what supporters of the bill might have said about the provisions being misunderstood, the simple fact is that it is unconstitutional.”

For an exhaustive yet readable breakdown of the NDAA, I recommend Glenn Greenwald’s article “Three Myths About the National Defense Authorization Act.”

The War on Terror has been bad news for civil liberties from the beginning, starting with Bush Jr.’s Patriot Act — which made it legal for the FBI to spy on Americans and search telephone, email, and financial records without a court order.

The Act also contained provisions allowing for the indefinite detention of any alien whom the Attorney General believed may cause a terrorist act. And now, with the new provisions added to the NDAA, this will apply to US citizens as well.

The very fact that I am able to criticize this new act, and post critical tongue-in-cheek pseudo-propaganda political cartoons is a testament to the America I cherish. I don’t want to lose that America.

Yet the fact that I am wondering if tags from this blog post could possibly land my name on some FBI worker’s hard drive is cause for serious concern.

Currently, the legal definition of a terrorist is defined by “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” However:

“Controversy centers on the loose definition of key words in the bill,” relates The Guardian‘s Paul Harris. In particular, vague terms like “associated forces” have many wondering exactly what constitutes a terrorist tie. Harris notes that “civil rights experts have said the lack of precise definition leaves [the NDAA] open to massive potential abuse.”

Because of this, many fear the provision could extend to journalists, authors, peaceful activists and academics. For writer and political consultant, Naomi Wolf, fear of the NDAA’s vague wording has already effected her ability to do her job as a journalist:

“My understanding of the bill has forced me to decline to meet with certain newsworthy individuals, [to report] on facts and stories that I otherwise believe are newsworthy, and contribute to a healthy national discourse – for no other reason than to avoid potential repercussions under the bill.”

Among others, she sites declining to interview controversial internet activist Julian Assange of the international whistleblower site, Wiki-leaks, because of statements made by high-level United States officials regarding their views of Assange as a terrorist (Joe Biden has called him a “high-tech terrorist”.)

Unfortunately, America is not above guilt by association witch hunts.

My paternal grandparents were both blacklisted for a decade from working in Hollywood (which was their livelihood) during the McCarthy Era Red Scare, simply for running in a circle of actors and artists, some of whom had communist ties — though my grandparents themselves did not. The nail in the coffin happened when my grandmother, an activist and humanitarian, gave a speech for the Red Cross at a podium at which, hours later, a communist speech was delivered by a person totally unrelated to her.

Even though my grandfather, Eddie, was a war hero who had volunteered to serve his country, he and his wife, Margo, were interrogated by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and officially barred from working in Hollywood. Overnight they became unemployable pariahs. People became afraid to associate with them, lest they invite the same fate upon themselves, and like other blacklist victims, they became public faces for people’s fear: when the newly married couple stepped out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on their wedding day, people spit on Margo’s white dress in the street.

They were forced to create a Vaudeville-style husband and wife act, performing in night clubs across the country until the ban was lifted, almost a decade later.

Witch hunts of a far more brutal caliber have happened, to be sure. Yet these people had done nothing wrong and they were put on Kafkaesque trial by the US government for no good reason. I’ve read the transcripts. They’re chilling: pummeled with leading questions and manipulative interrogations, suddenly held accountable for every casual comment they ever made and forced to justify their choices — in friends, in social clubs — to total strangers.

And that was before the information age.

How can America thrive when freedom — the very force that made her special — is vanishing one Patriot Act, one National Defense Authorization Act, at a time?

Then there’s the  anti-protesting law (officially, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011) challenging Americans’ constitutional right to assembly, the freedom of the individual to come together and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests. Up until now, the freedom to assemble has been recognized as a human right in America.

“The House of Representatives approved a bill that outlaws protests in instances where some government officials are nearby, whether or not you even know it […] That means disruptive activity, to whichever court has to consider it, will be a federal offense under the act.”  (Source)

This literally means that booing presidential candidates could land you in jail.

At least  SOPA — which would allow the government to effectively “shut down” websites — didn’t pass. Yet.

With acts like the NDAA and the anti-protest law passing, I’m frankly surprised.

The National Defense Authorization Act has been strongly opposed by the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and The Center for Constitutional Rights.

To find out what you can do to fight for American liberty, and to discover coalitions in your area, visit The People’s Campaign for the Constitution (

Stay informed and write your local representatives, urging them to take this incredibly important issue to the Supreme Court — which is our only hope at a repeal. As Forbes‘ Erik Kain notes: “people concerned with civil liberties should begin to walk away from the old left-right dichotomy entirely and focus on electing civil libertarians to congress.” If our civil liberties vanish, the social issues close to our hearts will become moot points.

Ironically, America’s War on Terror has become a source of terror itself.

As Erik Kain observes: “Each time we allow our fear to undermine our freedom we concede to the very terrorists we hope to defeat.” But fear is not the only obstacle; apathy, denial, self-absorption and laziness are our greatest enemies. In a country rich with unprecedented privilege, opportunity and freedom, we have frankly become complacent; even cocky. We feel that it will never touch us. But it already has. And, unchecked, the threat will only continue to advance, like a shadow across the land.

International readers, what does our situation look like from the outside? And what’s your situation like at home?

American readers, if you choose one issue to become active on this year, make it this one. Civil liberties are the bedrock of our nation. Without them, we lose everything.

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