By and large, I usually don’t worry to much about civil liberties. I consider myself a law-abiding citizen that generally doesn’t have much to worry about from an overreaching police state. I generally don’t buy the “slippery slope” arguments that typify privacy/civil liberty debates. A national ID card sounds great to me. I think the authorities should have pretty wide discretion in terms of electronic surveillance. etc.
That said, two recent initiatives in Congress should have all Americans worried about the state of civil liberties in this country. Our elected officials on both sides of the isle seem to think that the values of privacy, trial by jury and civilian rule are somehow outdated. Those two bills are, respectively, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and a provision in the National Defense Reauthorization Act that authorizes the military to detain American citizens both at home and abroad without the usual legal niceties as habeus corpus, etc.
Make no mistake about these bills – these aren’t bills that should be opposed becuase “if we don’t, what’s next!” These bills are what’s next – in and of themselves they are serious blows to the foundations of our liberty.
The two bills may seem distinct – one is being pushed largely by entertainment industry groups to allow them to more easily block piracy websites. The second is being pushed by a bipartisan coalition of Senators to expand the military’s mandates in the Global War on Terror. Both, however, strike directly at the heart of civil liberties in this country and are rooted in the assumption that there is some dire threat to America that the usual legal system is incapable of handling.
I know less about SOPA but just stop to note that the internet has proven to be one of the most powerful engines for democracy and innovation in the history of mankind – muzzling it for the sake of entertainment companie’s profit margins is almost certainly throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The Defense Reauthorization provision, however, is deeply unsettling. I’m in the US military. Arresting and detaining US citizens is not a job I want and not a job that we train for. Implicit in it is an argument that civilian authorities have somehow been incompetent or unable to prevent terrorist attacks since September 11th. The FBI and DOJ have foiled countless terror attacks since 9/11, have several succesful prosecutions and allowed zero succesful attacks. It turns out they’re pretty good at investigating crime – it’s what they do all day, every day. The military is great at killing people – putting warheads on foreheads. There’s plenty of work out there for us. We don’t need this one.
The War on Terror has been fought so far through constant cooperation and coordination between the miltiary and law enforcement. There’s simply no reason to overturn everything that makes America great – civilian rule, the power of the courts and the right to a fair trial. Certainly the military has information and tools that can be brought to bear by civilian authorities – but in order to remain a free nation, the enforcement of law must remain with civilian agencies and in civilian courts.
Online piracy threatens the profit margins of millionaires and billionaires. Al Qaeda is a small group of ignorant men who want the world to return to the 14th century. The United States is the most powerful nation that has ever existed. Surely we can defeat these problems without sacrificing the values that made us that way.