In a time of war, it's hard to find one more frightening than Attorney General John Ashcroft's "War on Terror." Immigrants are being detained, indefinitely and without cause. FBI agents are snooping through book-borrowing records at local libraries. Judges working for the executive branch are signing off on secret warrants and wiretaps. There's talk of classifying all airline passengers as potential terrorists, defining political dissent as "domestic terrorism," and building a massive database of everyone's electronic transactions.
Given all that and the supposed popularity of libertarian thought in Orange County, local response to Ashcroft's unprecedented taking of civil liberties has been utterly feckless.
Take the March 26 forum on the USA Patriot Act at the Irvine Ranch Water District Duck Club. About 60 people, virtually all seniors, showed up to listen to speakers including Orange County Register editorialist Alan Bock explain just how much damage Ashcroft has done to civil rights—and what is yet to come.
They started filing in at 9:30 p.m., which was actually when the whole thing was supposed to start. As it got closer to 10, dozens more arrived. Some wore buttons saying things like "Bring our troops home" or T-shirts saying, "War doesn't decide who's RIGHT, only who's LEFT." A large redheaded man began passing out literature from the "World Socialist Website," bristling whenever someone asked if he was part of the virtually defunct International Workers of the World.
"I think you'll be able to understand why the ACLU is upset with the Patriot Act," said the first speaker, ACLU attorney Birdie Reed. "The Patriot Act legalizes Watergate-style break-ins."
According to Reed, the Justice Department can now indefinitely incarcerate noncitizens on mere "suspicion" of being involved in "domestic terrorism"—a new crime defined by the act.
Reed spoke of how all espionage and law-enforcement agencies are merging into one all-knowing, all-seeing bureaucracy. The military and CIA can now carry out domestic surveillance and law-enforcement investigations. It's also much easier for FBI agents and investigators to obtain secret warrants and wiretaps. Though a panel of judges must approve these warrants, those judges work for the Justice Department, further eroding constitutional checks and balances.
She then took questions, including one from a senior asking if the ABC News program Nightline was violating her rights by charging nearly $70 for a tape of a recent broadcast.
Moving right along, Register writer Bock came up.
"None of this is new," he told the now-very-agitated crowd. "The Patriot Act was something the Clinton administration tried to pass but couldn't. Washington is not necessarily a rational place. Thank goodness there's an ACLU office there."
Bock said the Patriot Act allows the FBI to search, of all things, library records. It's also now a crime for librarians to inform suspects that the FBI is interested in their book-borrowing practices.
When Bock said it was insulting that most of Congress voted for the Patriot Act without even reading it, one senior asked, "Do you really think legislators would vote on something they haven't read?"
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That got a big laugh.
"Courts should be most active and vigilant during war," Bock said. "But that's when courts give [the administration] the benefit of the doubt. The executive branch is the most dangerous of the three to people's liberties. How do we know when we'll win this 'War on Terror'? We're going to be in this war for generations."
Defining an action plan fell on the forum's last speaker, Orange County Civil Rights Coalition member Sukh Chugh. He came to the lectern flashing a peace sign, spoke of how "incredible" it was to get such a crowd on a weekday, but offered little by way of hard-charging law-changing activism.
Sure, there was the plan to boycott corporations that donate millions to the George W. Bush campaign. Chugh was also big on getting local cities to pass resolutions opposing the act and any follow-on legislation. Then he said we should all buy a $2 "Dissent is Patriotic" button.