Sitting on my desk is a pin that reads “For President: Convict No. 9653.” The man pictured is bald, and his expression looks like a kindly grimace.
During World War I, while we were fighting to make the world safe for democracy, the U.S. government quickly locked up dissidents like Eugene V. Debs, the perennial Socialist candidate who ran for president even while in prison. Other radicals, like Emma Goldman, were deported. Germans, even Americans with German last names, were harassed, and many had to hide their heritage.
The next time we had a major war was World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt termed the country an arsenal of democracy. While we may remember the home front as a place of cooperation and community, it is also worth recalling the informal internal surveillance that came with war. And of course the government interned Americans of Japanese descent in shameful concentration camps.
It is worth remembering this history as politicians sound the trumpet for a total war against terrorism in the wake of last week’s attacks in New York and Washington.
After the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was happily signed into law by President Clinton. Among other things, it included a provision that allowed the government to arbitrarily arrest and detain indefinitely any immigrant accused of being a national security threat. The immigrant could not see the evidence against him — only an unclassified summary — nor was he allowed to know even what the charges were against him.
In one typical case, the mere fact that an Iranian scientist at Duke University was familiar with computational fluid dynamics was enough to mark him a threat and land him in jail indefinitely.
To put it simply, I am scared of what restrictions of movement, what deprivations of civil liberties, what suppression will happen now.
Republican Senate leader Trent Lott announced on Wednesday: “When you are at war, civil liberties are treated differently. We cannot let what happened yesterday happen in the future.”
On Thursday, travelers at LaGuardia Airport reported to The New York Times that security personnel singled out dark-skinned men and men with beards for extra questioning.
Even liberal darling Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said that he would be willing to allow greater electronic surveillance.
On Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft called on Congress to pass new anti-terrorism legislation, which would make wiretaps easier to impose and make them portable, so that the FBI could monitor multiple phones with one authorization.
Other proposals have called for turning every wireless phone into a tracking device.
Americans have always valued their privacy, and have rebelled against the overuse of wiretaps. In the mid-1970s, the Yale community learned that many phones had been tapped during May Day 1970. Outrage followed, led by an especially vocal Vincent Scully, who told the News that if the FBI had tapped his phone, he would sue them.
I hope that in the wake of last week’s attacks, Americans haven’t lost their sense of privacy and will still fight for their rights. It is important to remember that whatever legislation Congress passes in this time of crisis will be permanent.
On Tuesday, President Bush announced that freedom itself had been attacked. But he promised that “freedom will be defended.” I hope he was serious, and that he won’t let a terrorist attack on freedom be successful.
Jacob Remes is a senior in Saybrook College.