Eleven Years On: Freedom in a Post 9/11 America

In 1776 Thomas Jefferson began the Declaration of Independence; ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal’. America then went on to discriminate against women, African-Americans and Hispanics for over two hundred years. Hypocrisy is arguably synonymous with the American constitution. The First Amendment states;

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment essentially outlines freedom. Freedom from government intervention. The Freedom of speech, press and assembly that America consistently criticises totalitarian regimes of not upholding.  Most recently, criticisms against the North Korean regime but also in the past America has heavily criticised the USSR and China for the lack of political freedoms in their country. Of course, on no level is the USA an equivalent to these dictatorial regimes but it begs to question how much the America people, and indeed we in Britain, know how much we’re being lied to. A cynical joke from the Cold War can be applied to this question:

‘What’s the difference between East Germany and West Germany?’
‘The People of East Germany know they’re being lied to.’

After the attacks on the World Trade Centre, it was commonly thought that this was the new distinction of time for the USA. Not before or after Christ, but before or after the largest terrorist attack on US soil in history. Eleven years after the event in question, can we now truly measure the freedom of the American people before and after this date? Whilst supporter of the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, will label these intrusive measures as a protection of National Security, what about the rights of the ordinary citizen? Has terrorism reduced liberty and thus contradicted the First Amendment, or are the measures that have resulted from terrorist events the only way to protect the American people? Orlando Patterson for the Democracy Journal named the post 9/11 infringement on liberty as the ‘greatest threats to civil liberties since the McCarthy era’. Perhaps Terrorism not Communism will define this century.

One month on from 9/11 the US Senate passed the Patriot Act with only one Senator- Russell Feigngold voting against. Was this a knee jerk reaction? Perhaps. The list of new powers that arose from the Patriot Act sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel. The Act has been accused of violating the constitution in three key areas. Firstly, it arguably violates the Fourth Amendment, which says the government cannot conduct a search without obtaining a warrant and showing probable cause to believe that the person has committed or will commit a crime. There are two counts were it violates the First Amendment. The first being the guarantee of free speech by prohibiting the recipients of search orders from disclosing this information with others. It also violates the First Amendment by effectively authorizing the FBI to launch investigations of American citizens in part for exercising their freedom of speech. 67% of Americans in 2002 believed that yes the US government should take measures to protect homeland security but these should not infringe on their civil liberties. Evidently, one year on from the patriot act the America people realised the consequences of that original knee jerk reaction.

After the death of over three thousand people from the 9/11 attacks it is understandable that the American people and indeed politicians supported an act they knew little about. Arguably, the reason for this was a knee jerk reaction to their astonishing grief but also perhaps little understanding about how the act would apply to them as innocent citizens. Eleven years on, the political climate is perhaps in a better state to absorb criticism of an act which was thought to protect America. Major flaws of the Act can be seen by the ordeal of one victim, Brandon Mayfield. Mayfield, an Oregon attorney, was falsely linked to terrorism over false ties with the 2004 Madrid bombings. Publishers of Mayfield’s case have been labelled sensationalists, right wing and unaware of the tremendous dangers of terrorism. Despite this, Mayfield’s case was real. A real consequence of the Patriot Act.  Mayfield and his family were subject to break-ins at their family home and surveillance from federal agents. The evidence that linked him to the bombings was later found out to have been fabricated and Mayfield ended the ordeal with a two million dollar settlement. The sheer amount of surveillance and fears of further break-ins that he was unjustifiably subject to mirror 1984 and ‘Big Brother’. This was a result of an unchecked executive that has used the ‘War on Terror’ to create a permanent state of ‘war’ that has established leaders that are exercising the same amount of freedom as leaders during a conventional war.

Ten years on from 9/11 and cases like Mayfield’s were still occurring. In 2011 Jubair Ahmad, a 24-year-old Pakistani legal resident living in Virginia was arrested by the Department of Justice for ‘terrorist’ crime that was so vague, it simply entailed ‘providing material support’ to a designated terrorist organization. All it is believed Ahmad did was upload a YouTube video showing Abu Ghraib photos, US Iraqi war footage, and Islamic prayers. For this, he faced more than twenty years in prison. Evidently, free speech no longer exists. Despite the fact that America spent centuries trying to over-rule racist legislation, it appears- according to Robert Taylor of Policy MIC- that many Americans do not feel it wrong to target Muslims for constitutionally protected free speech. This is a sad effect of racial prejudice, grief and the effects on fundamentalists to tarnish the reputation of an entire religious group. The American people need to realise that by allowing the government to carry on in this manner, they are setting a dangerous precedent for governments to abuse their powers in the future. Moreover, as evident from the Boston bombings that it is believed were carried by Chechen brothers, racial stereotyping does not help America prevent terrorist events.

In 2012 the ‘War on Terror’ saw resurgence under a new slightly worrying name ‘deposition matrix’. This new policy highlighted in a Guardian article entitled ‘Obama Moves to Make War on Terror Permanent’ in October 2012 showed real causes for concern. Initially the Patriot Act was set to expire in 2005 and when it faced review in Congress it did face much stronger opposition which led to a reduction of its powers. However, Obama’s proposition in 2012 aimed to ‘make permanent, the most extremist powers it exercised in the name of the war on terror’. Whilst the central concerns of the proposals are those adding more names to capture lists, domestically there is also cause for concern. When Obama came into office he advocated the closure of Guantanamo Bay stating; ‘We do not condone torture’. However, with the detention camp still open- despite promise after promise- Obama’s new method of dealing with terrorists is far more worrying. Glenn Greenwold of the Guardian accuses Obama of aiming to- under this new set of proposals- simply execute terrorists overseas in order not to contradict with the constitution and find a loo pole in the obstruction of the Guantanamo Bay closure. In addition to this, Obama’s nomination for CIA director John Brennan faced stark criticism over the fact he wouldn’t condemn torture, and worries over his support for drone attacks. These Foreign Policy initiatives show a slippery slope that affects the ordinary citizen’s civil liberties. In October last year the Obama administration was outlining its policy on drone attacks abroad, this has now escalated to the administration asking for further desires of using these attacks at home. Can the USA government really preach ‘Liberty and justice for all men’ when it is openly discussing the use of killing campaigns against US citizens?

The ‘War on Terror’ is not over. Last week’s events at the Boston marathon quite clearly display that. However, this is not the sole reason why this ‘war’ isn’t over. More often than not the increase of executive powers after the World Trade Centre attacks is something associated with the Bush Administration. This is not the case. Obama has been hailed by critics such as Ryu Spaeth of ‘This Week’ as holding a ‘license to kill’. The same Obama who is extremely liberal in domestic policies such as healthcare reform and equality, like Nixon, he too has taken extreme and very controversial measures abroad. Eric Holder, the attorney general, has recently said that Obama ‘has authority to use drone strikes to kill Americans on US soil’. This is to stop terrorism. Holder alluded to the 2001 events, stating that the President would only exercise this power in a similar situation. According to research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes, which are targeted killing campaigns, killed between four hundred and seventy four and eight hundred and eighty one civilians in Pakistan between 2004 and 2012. This attempt to wield more executive power has gone too far. The drone attacks are frankly terrifying. Domestic criticism has focused particularly on the implications of whether these citizens were American. Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric born and educated in the US, was killed in Yemen in 2011. It could be argued that 9/11 has provided politicians with a means in which to use it manoeuvre to claim more power. The details on these new powers that Obama has been hoping to secure have been outlined in a series of memos between Holder and Obama that critics have pleaded for release. A senior counsel at Human Rights First, said in response to these new executive privileges ‘It’s hard to see how authorities could not be in a position to arrest someone yet be able to kill them.’ Arguably a consequence of 9/11 has become this infringement on the rights of ordinary people as executive has preceded trial; contradicting the sixth amendment which refers to trial by jury. I would argue that the President should not hold such dictatorial powers. Not only is this wrong morally, but it also contradicts the constitution itself which is America’s higher law- not the President.

To conclude, it is apparent that no country is entirely free. Indeed, it is how societies view freedom. Freedom is not anarchy. However, the situation that has unfolded a post 9/11 USA has gone too far. It is the age on conundrum; would you rather see an innocent man free alongside a thousand criminals, or one thousand criminals and one innocent man in prison? America is desperate to restore her national security, but if marathon runners-many running for charity- are attacked in an American city eleven years on from 9/11; it shows little progress has been made. Despite this, the USA needs to find a balance between the two situations. She needs to secure a balance between a country which is aiming to authorise the killing of its own citizens in specified circumstances, and that which experiences a defining attack which she is struggling to prevent from re occurring. Of course, to protect national security there has to be some limited restrictions to civil liberties otherwise the US would find itself in a lawless society. However, currently this degree of compromise has not been met. By restricting civil liberties the American government is contradicting the very foundation of its existence. America’s Department of Homeland Security spent over sixty six billion dollars last year. Around three thousand two hundred people in total died in the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the Oklahoma bombings of 1995 and the more recent bombings at the Boston marathon, yet- according to the Guardian- eighty five people ever year die in gun related deaths, that’s over thirty one thousand every year. Perhaps America should put its time and money intro reforming the second amendment rather than taking away the guarantees of the first.

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