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A 12 Pages Term Paper on Civil Liberties



Introduction

         Absolutes not being known we live in a world where every thing is relative, including concepts.  The concept of civil liberties is, therefore, not an absolute but a relative concept, which has to be judged and balanced in the relative conditions of environment which is itself a complex amalgam of manifold factors like politics, economics, psycho-social considerations, and above all, the basic need for survival. Being relative means two things - one that civil rights have limits and second that they cannot be applied ubiquitously under all situations that environment could produce. But who determines these limits and who defines the situations?  In democratic societies it is left to the majority, or the majority government.  In fact democracy and civil rights are so closely tied that the founder of American Civil Liberties Union, Roger Baldwin went to the extent of saying that, "so long as we have enough people in this country willing to fight for their rights, we'll be called a democracy" (Internet).

Thesis

         The concept of civil liberties is environment bound and is only good till it becomes exploitative.  The current situation does not make them exploitative. As such, curtailing civil liberties would work negatively in present environment

Historical Perspective

         The story of civil rights and individual liberties started when “the first Congress met in 1789” (Lewinski, p- 97). The first amendment made to the constitution was termed the Bill of rights. These rights became really effective through Amendment 14 in 1866 when they spread to all the states. (Lewinski, p- 117) However, it is not these provisions in the constitution, which alone ensure civil liberties.  In fact, the real implementation and guarantee has come through court decisions and rulings in various cases. A law without interpretation is like a loaded gun without a trigger.  All the Court rulings have one thing in common.  They show that no civil liberty is absolute.  Each has its limits. And each time this limit has been applied either when individual or a group liberty started to work against civil liberties themselves, or against others (the society), or against a higher cause.  In all these cases the civil liberty or individual liberty becomes exploitative, and thus self-defeating.  A few examples would substantiate this argument.  In a decision relating to a case on religious freedom a judge wrote “…suppose that one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of his religious worship – would it be seriously contended that the government could not interfere to prevent sacrifice”(Lewinski, p-100). All the three criteria set down would be violated if sacrifice is allowed.  Liberty of belief for one would be total loss of liberty for another.  The liberty would start to work against itself.  Civil right of one would be satisfied at the cost of another’s right to exist.  And lastly, but most importantly, liberty of one would jeopardize a higher cause - survival of another person.  In another ruling related to freedom of speech the judge writes, “…when a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance…that their utterance will not be endured” (Lewinski, p-102) This clearly indicates that civil liberties are situation bound and are not applicable under all situations - their limits and their utility changes with changing environment.

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         The historical perspective would be incomplete with out mentioning American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), founded in 1920. Had it not been for ACLU’s continuous reference to courts for challenging any encroachment on civil liberties, the gun would still not have the trigger.  ACLU has addressed cases pertaining to almost every kind of individual liberty and the arguments and court decisions provide the other angle in limits to civil liberties i.e. exploitation of civil liberties (as against exploitation by civil liberties when we were discussing the limits).  A few examples would elaborate the argument. In 1977, Nazis planned a march in a Jewish suburb of Chicago. The Supreme Court gave a ruling in favor of Nazi’s march.  The argument of ACLU included inter alia, “…the people who most need to defend the rights of Ku Klux Klan are blacks…and to defend the rights of Nazis are the Jews” (Lewinski, p-108).  What does the argument mean?  It means that curtailing one person’s civil liberties jeopardizes every ones civil liberties, and conversely, ensuring one person’s civil liberties ensure every ones civil liberties.  To relate to the thesis, it means that if one infringes upon someone else’s liberty, he in fact infringes upon his own liberty - the argument starts to work against itself.  At this point the argument against civil liberties becomes exploitative and ridiculous and must be dropped and overruled.

         The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) developed in 1950s and 60s.  Whereas the ACLU provided an impetus to individual civil liberties by frequent reference to courts for interpretation of laws on civil liberties, the CRM was a mass movement, which challenged all kinds of discrimination between individuals.  At the core was the issue of blacks and whites, and equality of all individuals.  Relating this to the thesis it is easy to understand that what this movement was highlighting was the fact that individual liberties cannot be allowed to infringe upon liberty of other individuals and groups.  The right of Nazis and Ku Klux Klan to express their views must be upheld but it would become ridiculous if at the same time we start to suffocate the Jews or the blacks.  The women rights movement in 60s and 70s, and the reference to court by American Japanese, displaced forcefully during WWII, to seek compensation, are all part of the same story.  The argument was the same - protection of the right of majority is only ensured through protection of the rights of the tiniest minority.

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Present Perspective

         The question about whether civil liberties may be sacrificed for security against terrorism cannot be answered unless we understand what is the present environment? Is the environment such that civil liberties have started to bite themselves, or others, or a higher purpose i.e. have they become exploitative?

         The environment is this.  Freedom, open society, civil liberties, free thought, and egalitarianism are pitched against subjugation, closed society, regimentation, dogmatism, and dictatorship.  What is the weapon in the hands of terrorists?  Terror. So terror is pitched against peace and harmony.  When the aggregate of terror rises higher than peace and harmony, the latter starts to look ridiculous and meaningless. The terrorists are trying to create an environment where all that America stands for becomes self-defeating and exploitative.  Where our values start to work against us.  Where our beliefs, our traditions, and our vision becomes its own enemy.  In a nutshell they are trying to create an environment, which should turn against itself.

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         So - as per earlier arguments if the environment is such that the civil liberties start to work against themselves then we must give a second thought and curtail liberties.  So should we?  The answer is `No’.  We must differentiate between terrorism and war; especially at the strategic level.  If the enemy’s strategy is to turn our values and our environment against us, if what constitutes victory for the enemy and defeat for us is to lift our faith in our own self, then our strategy should be to make all efforts not to let the environment change.  It is our job to make all efforts that either the environment does not change or we do not react to change in the environment in a manner which constitute victory for the enemy.

         It is this fact which Anthony Romero, the ACLU's National Executive Director expressed when he said that for America to sacrifice its commitment to civil liberties and tolerance would be to hand the terrorists a victory.  He said that, "terror, by its very nature, is intended not only to destroy, but also to intimidate a people, forcing them to take actions that are not in their best interest," (Internet source).

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Analysis of Current Response

         So are we resisting a change in the environment and are we avoiding to react in a manner, which is inimical to enemy’s victory - unfortunately not.  The anti-terrorism bill is focusing at almost all areas of civil liberties such as: “giving government the power to detain non-citizens indefinitely, curtailing judicial oversight of federal law enforcement wiretaps that ensures proper justifications for the taps, expanding the use of secret searches, and using vague definitions of terrorism that could lead to prosecution of domestic protest groups” (Internet source). This is tantamount to playing in the hands of the enemy.  As it is said, in such situations persuasion, not coercion, is the solution (Internet source). Even if we think that a certain liberty must be curtailed in order to increase security then the populace must be convinced that enough has been done by the government to ensure safety of people and the measure being taken is in the best interest of their security.  The litmus test whether a certain action is really needed or is an undue retrenchment of civil liberties is whether it is necessary for security or is it exploiting the current situation to settle some other agenda. After all its people’s safety and security – not the government’s. Have we done enough to check terrorism? Have we looked enough into the causes of terrorism? After all there was a time when there was no terrorism and now it is.  So what has changed? Can governments be allowed to carry on with their own agendas and punish us when the backlash comes? 

Conclusion

         The history of civil liberties in America shows that the concept is environment bound and does not have a ubiquitous application in all time and under all conditions.  Civil liberties have to be curtailed when they start to defeat their own purpose.  In the present fight against terrorism, the strategy of the terrorists is to create an environment where freedom of speech, of thought, of religion, and egalitarian behavior become finical, expensive, and irrelevant niceties.  Unfortunately we are presently reacting exactly the way the enemy wants.  We must learn to maintain liberty amongst order and order amongst liberty.  It is possible and practicable.  It only needs resolution at the strategic level and good planning at the tactical level.

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Works Cited

Retrieved from the World Wide We on Nov. 26, 2001 http://www.aclu.org/library/pbp1.html

Lewinski, Capurro, Clancy, Levine, Nicholas. Consent of the Governed – A study of American Government. Glenview: Scott, Foresman & Company. 1988

Retrieved from the World Wide We on Nov. 26, 2001 http://www.aclu-wa.org/ISSUES/otherissues/Anti-Terrorism.10.10.01.html

Retrieved from the World Wide We on Nov. 26, 2001 http://www.aclu.org/library/pbp1.html

Retrieved from the World Wide We on Nov. 26, 2001 http://www.aclu-wa.org/ISSUES/freespeech/index.html

 
 


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