The terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon should not be used to justify tighter restrictions on personal liberties, warns the American Civil Liberties Union.
Scott Crichton, executive director of the Montana ACLU, says that membership in his organization has been steadily increasing all year, and he predicts that membership will climb even higher if there’s a rush to rein in civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Comments made by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who said America allowed the attacks because of its capitulation to the homosexual/feminist/ACLU agenda, will likely increase membership as well. Falwell later apologized, though his apology was widely criticized even by conservatives for being less than heartfelt.
The Montana ACLU has produced an award-winning series of radio spots featuring 60-second summaries of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, and is now working on another series. Those spots have been airing for months throughout Montana.
Over the years the ACLU has endured public criticism for defending unpopular or controversial causes. For instance, some years ago the ACLU defended the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., home to many Holocaust survivors. Crichton says that type of advocacy called for public education—precisely the type of education needed now, as Congress and even individual citizens are poised to relinquish some civil liberties for the promise of greater safety.
“Civics are not simple,” he says. “It’s a complex balance of understanding the role of government in our lives.” Crichton notes that the ACLU does support some additional security measures, such as reinforced cockpit doors on commercial jetliners, iris scans or thumbprint identification for airline and airport employees, and matching luggage to passenger lists.
But Crichton warns that some may take advantage of the current situation by seeking to restrict civil liberties for reasons other than national security. He says such restrictions should be publicly debated and take into account the government’s existing investigative powers before new ones are granted.
For Crichton and others at the ACLU, the Sept. 11 attacks had a personal impact as well: The ACLU national office in New York was on the blast perimeter, and that office has been without phone or e-mail ever since. “It’s not like this [attack] is an inconvenience for people like us,” says Crichton. “It’s a tragedy. We’ve been very cautious in our response because we’re Americans too, and we’re mourning like everybody else.”