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September 11
A Year Later

Loss of civil rights post-9/11 alarms Muslims, legal experts


A year later, the United States is still reeling from the shock of the attacks of Sept. 11. As the Bush administration put the nation on high alert in an effort to protect Americans from further terrorism, the crisis spawned unprecedented expansion of governmental powers.

Among the first was the USA PATRIOT Act (October 2001), a double acronym for the unwieldy “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”

The act gave sweeping authority to government agencies to interrogate, detain and hold suspects without charge -- essentially the curtailing of constitutionally protected civil liberties in the interest of national security. It was followed by the creation of the Transportation Security Agency (February 2002), which took over the former role of the Federal Aviation Administration in providing airport and airline security; and by expansion of almost unlimited powers to the Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency and office of the Attorney General.

The most recent (and almost universally snubbed) creation of the Justice Department has apparently died a quiet death because even its initial supporters soon had qualms about it: “Operation TIPS” (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) called on postal workers, utility companies, truckers, librarians and private citizens to “volunteer” to formally report any suspicious activity that could be linked to terrorism.

Many Americans are tolerant and even supportive of the government’s intent to stem terrorist attacks and identify major players in worldwide terrorism. Despite misgivings, most citizens apparently believe that war -- even an undeclared war waged without clear parameters or goals against unspecified “evildoers” -- may require the limiting of some civil rights enshrined in the Constitution.

But the very attempt to “Unite and Strengthen America” has meant that civil liberties for some Americans have been, at best, put on hold while they have been subjected to suspicion, harassment and even physical violence. Perhaps no group has experienced the backlash from 9/11 more than the U.S. Muslim community.

In late June, more than 500 Muslims from seven Midwestern states met at the University of Missouri-Kansas City to address issues surrounding Sept. 11. The Kansas City conference, titled “Muslims for Peace and Justice,” was one of several similar gatherings around the country designed to promote an accurate perception of the authentic teachings of Islam among their non-Muslim neighbors and to promote diversity. Among the workshops in the three-day conference, sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America, was a session on civil rights and how the events of Sept. 11 have affected the day-to-day lives of Muslims.

Dick Kurtenbach, director of the Kansas City office of the American Civil Liberties Union and one of the workshop presenters, outlined the eclipse of civil liberties in the post- 9/11 climate and noted an increase in cases brought to the ACLU’s attention by members of the Muslim and Arab communities.

Kurtenbach said he believed the United States today is “at the same level of historical error” in relation to the Arab and Muslim community as it was during World War II “when tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were interred in detention camps with no evidence of threat.” From the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when lives and careers were ruined because of blacklisting and threats of communist involvement, to the ’60s and Vietnam with spying on citizens and confiscation of records, he said, “we have often witnessed our government at its very worst.”

The United States has “made very, very serious mistakes very often, and it usually happens when we feel threatened,” he said. Linking the USA Patriot Act to those earlier mistakes, Kurtenbach said that while “its aim is to make us safe, in reality it makes us less free.” A significant part of the problem, he said, is that the act takes judges out of the legal process, “which is why we can have more than 1,000 Arab and Muslim-Americans unjustly profiled, detained for months without formal charges and individuals designated as ‘enemy combatants’ without proof.”

Surveying the current scene in terms of civil liberties and protection of constitutional rights, Kurtenbach said, “I am usually an optimistic person. I am a little less optimistic about this particular situation.”

For American Muslims, the erosion of civil liberties and loss of freedoms has prompted the ad hoc formation of several groups and organizations. One is the new Muslim Legal Fund of America, based in Plano, Texas. Its founder is a strategist by profession, not a lawyer, but said he formed the organization because of the pressing need he saw for Muslims to have access to funding for legal representation. In an interview with NCR, Wajahat Sayeed said he noted with alarm that “the only people [Attorney General John] Ashcroft is profiling and detaining are Arabs and Muslims.”

“A lot of these cases have already been cleared by the FBI,” he said, “but it doesn’t make a difference to these people.”

Sayeed said that according to law, a person cannot be held for more than six months without being charged, yet large numbers of Arabs and Muslims continue to be held, “with no charges, no legal representation. … Some of the treatment in the holding facilities and jails is horrible,” he said, citing a Texas case in which he says a Muslim inmate was treated abusively and deprived of food.

Sayeed said his goal is to have a group of about a dozen lawyers nationwide who could work with specific cases. “We can’t afford to fly them around the country,” he said -- thus the focus on having individuals available to help in different locales. Eventually, he said, he hoped the organization could provide funds to help clients with legal fees and court costs.

“I don’t have a lot of money and I’m not a lawyer, but I knew in the current atmosphere, it was time to do something,” Sayeed said.

Sayeed, who was also a presenter at the civil rights workshop with Kurtenbach, warned his audience about apathy. “The biggest mistake we in this hall can make is to think that bad things happen only to other people.” He cited the case of an FBI raid on a Muslim home outside Washington in which the suspect’s wife and two daughters, still in their nightclothes, were held at gunpoint, handcuffed and interrogated in the middle of the night. “Today it’s a so-called terrorist who’s detained,” he said. “Next, it’s your daughters who will be handcuffed.”

Similar concerns were voiced last month by a University of Dayton law professor and ACLU board member, Richard Saphire. Saphire said he was troubled by the “particular secretiveness” and sweeping governmental powers of the Bush administration.

While he said he had no doubt the Bush administration believes its post-9/11 law enforcement and security measures are in the nation’s best interests, Saphire said he is alarmed that the American people have too easily acquiesced to “very restrictive government policies.”

“Most Americans apparently have the attitude that, with respect to matters of security and terrorism, we’ll just place our confidence in the hands of the government and hope they know what to do,” Saphire said. “We just assume that whatever that costs is worth it.”

Through what he called “frightening” decision-making processes carefully hidden from public scrutiny, those ruled as combatants can be “whisked away to God knows where,” Saphire said. He noted that within six weeks after Sept. 11, some 1,200 people were detained. Some were deported, some are still in prison and some have been unable to have legal representation. “The notion that we can take people who we suspect are in cahoots with terrorists and hold them forever and not supply lawyers and not process in public -- that’s almost unheard of in American history.”

Saphire acknowledged that striking a balance between freedom and security is always difficult, but he said he sees “a lot of ominous signs out there.”

“With more cameras in public places and surveillance on the Internet and at public meetings, the realm of individual privacy that’s immune from government scrutiny is shrinking more and more. That’s something that’s not easily retrievable,” he said.

He said he thinks many Americans “have begun to accept the notion that we must concede to the government enormous power to fight an undeclared, ill-defined and open-ended war on terrorism,” even if it means giving up cherished freedoms. “And this is something about which we all should be worried.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002