Monday, December 27, 2004

Uncivil liberties and the other victims of Sept. 11, 2001
Monday, December 27, 2004
Uncivil liberties and the other victims of Sept. 11, 2001
By William Fisher
Special to The Daily Star

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, millions of words have been written about the "terrorists in our midst" and what law enforcement agencies are doing to fight it. However, few questioned whether an overzealous American government was compromising American civil liberties.

In the days and weeks following Sept. 11, the FBI rounded up and imprisoned thousands of immigrants and visitors to the United States.

Now, in a new report titled "Worlds Apart," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has documented what happened to 13 of these "other victims" of the Sept. 11 attacks, and to their families.

The story of how the U.S. government responded to Sept. 11 remains relatively little known. The short version, from the ACLU report, is that the United States: "incarcerated petitioners in degrading and inhumane conditions. Although the immigrants generally were detained on non-criminal immigration charges, many were kept in cells for 23 hours a day and were made to wear hand and leg shackles when leaving their cells.

"Some were kept in solitary confinement for extended periods with no explanation. Lights were left on 24 hours a day, immigrants were denied the use of blankets, and many were denied telephone calls and visits with family members."

For many, says the ACLU, "the nightmare began with their arrest. FBI and immigration officials dragged some people out of their houses in the middle of the night in front of frightened wives and children. Others were picked up for being in the wrong place [like the man] arrested by agents who had come looking for his roommate but took him instead. Still others were arrested after routine traffic stops. For many, it would be days before they could contact their families with their whereabouts and weeks before they could access legal help. The government refused to release the names of people it had detained. Behind bars, many suffered from harassment and even physical abuse."

None of the thousands of people detained by what was then still the Immigration and Naturalization Service were found guilty of any terrorism-related offenses or connected in any way with the Sept. 11 attacks. The ACLU added: "Yet the Justice Department website still boasts that hundreds of immigrants 'linked to the Sept. 11 investigation have been deported'."

The report charges that "the government's unlawful policies had profound effects not only on the people who were unlawfully imprisoned but also on their families and communities. Families were torn apart. Communities were shattered." And the stories told in this report are just a small sample. There are hundreds of similar ones that haven't been recounted.

The stories of the 13 deportees vary widely, as they all come from different backgrounds. However, the report also observed that "the stories of these men are similar in important ways.

"All came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their families. All were Muslim, from South Asia or the Middle East. After Sept. 11, all were caught in a government dragnet that swept up hundreds of Muslims indiscriminately.

"And all were denied basic rights normally afforded to those detained in the United States and other democratic countries." Many were "deported to countries where they haven't lived in years, and where unemployment rates are high and salaries are low."

The ACLU report concluded: "In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, the people whose stories are told in this report did not count. The United States government arrested them without suspicion, imprisoned them without charge, and abused them without consequence. All of this took place in secret. To this day, the government still refuses to release the names of the people who were imprisoned."

The architect of this Bush administration policy of mass deportations, Attorney General John Ashcroft, is on his way out. In his recent farewell speech, he congratulated Justice Department staffers for safeguarding American civil liberties. But Ashcroft's abysmal record shows a different picture. More worrying is that the man nominated to be his successor is White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. He is the author of the now infamous memo justifying torture of prisoners of war and calling the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and obsolete. It is unlikely that Gonzales will be paying much attention to due process where immigrants and foreign visitors are concerned.

After Sept. 11, the U.S. government acted out of perhaps understandable fear. It enacted legislation that placed traditional civil liberties protections on the backburner. Security was - and remains - paramount. As in other periods of crisis in America, the government went too far. While the U.S. constitution has always managed to get the pendulum to swing back, this time may be more difficult. America has never before confronted an open-ended threat from Islamist terrorists, which has made the government especially willing to continue favoring security over civil liberties.

The restoration of that balance will require proactive public policies that, among other things, recognize that it was immigrants who built America, and that civil liberties have always belonged to citizens and non-citizens alike.

Sadly, this is unlikely to happen on George W. Bush's watch.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.