Civil Rights and the Right to Know

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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"They Don't Tell Us What to Look For"

One complaint in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the anthrax incidents afterward, is "They tell us to be alert, but they don't tell us what to look out for."

The Federal Government advises people to watch for packages with loose wires, suspicious stains, excessive postage and incomplete addresses. Frankly, if you get a package like that, you're dealing with a very stupid terrorist. Shameful how people don't take pride in their work any more.

Terrorists by definition use surprise and concealment. A predictable terrorist is no threat. So it is impossible to give a simple list of what to look for.

So here it is. You notice everything. You identify every potential threat, everywhere, all the time, and have a plan to deal with it if something happens. Always. You no longer have a right to go through life in a fog on cruise control. You never really did, but the penalties before now were not severe - your career was lackluster, your achievements were nil, other people picked up the slack because you underachieved, they paid the bills when your negligence got you in trouble, but there were no really bad consequences. Now your inattention might get you killed. So you spend all your time, 24/7/365, observing and thinking. Gerbils eat, sleep and reproduce, and go through life without thinking. If you want to live that way, don't complain about other people "dehumanizing" you. You did it yourself.

Here's What We're Up Against

On a recent plane change at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, my wife had a sore back so we got a ride on a motorized cart. These things are about the size of a small car and emit a constant beeping sound. Our trip was a short one between two adjacent concourses. At least a dozen times, the driver had to ask people to get out of the way. These people were so oblivious to what was going on they didn't notice that a car-sized vehicle, emitting a constant beep - indoors! - had come up to within three feet of them from behind.

These are the people we are asking to "report anything suspicious." Even scarier, many of them were traveling on business. These are the people who have the U.S. economy in their care.

"I Have a Right to Know What's Going On"

This isn't the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, where people get to know things for the sake of titillation or idle curiosity. I was watching the news one night when a bulletin broke in, announcing that the grand jury in the Jon-Benet Ramsey case had decided not to return an indictment. I sat there for a few minutes doing the goldfish thing, then I turned to my wife and said: "Do you realize what just happened? They interrupted a news broadcast to tell us that nothing was happening!"

Months before September 11, a news story revealed that our intelligence agencies had been tracking Osama Bin Laden's cell phone. He immediately stopped using it.

After September 11:

So what do you have a right to know?

None of this applies to the Jon-Benet Ramsey case. Only people in the immediate region had any reason to know about the murder, in case it was the work of someone who might strike again. And people in that area have a legitimate interest in being sure their police function competently. Nobody else has the slightest reason to take an interest in this case at all.

In the case of military operations that could fail if the enemy found out about them, your right to know at the time is nil. It will not hurt your capability as an informed citizen in the least if you find out about an event 72 hours or a week later.

Presenting information is journalism. Informing the public may mean holding a story until there is time to run it properly and completely, running informative stories in preference to sensational ones, and making sure errors and corrections get the same exposure as the original story. Presenting stories for sensation, shock value, novelty, or emotional impact is entertainment. Both journalism and entertainment are protected by the First Amendment, but one is serious, even sacred, and one isn't.

So if you really want to know, I suggest you start with the things you already have a duty to know:

September 11 and Civil Rights

First, let's deal with some non-issues. Being asked questions is not a violation of your rights. If an identifying characteristic narrows the possible choice of suspects, police have a right to use it. If a murder victim were found in my town tomorrow with a geologist's pick embedded in his skull, you can bet the police would drop by and see me for a visit. And they'd have every right to. And if that identifying characteristic is ethnic, cultural, linguistic or racial, nothing changes. If you want to call that "ethnic profiling," be my guest. If you confuse labels with rational arguments you don't have anything to contribute to this discussion.

If you're really concerned about preserving civil rights in this time of crisis, allow me to suggest we start by eliminating some existing civil rights violations:

When it was suggested a few years ago that the IRS have to assume the burden of proof in tax cases, the director of the IRS testified before Congress that the IRS would be unable to perform its functions under that rule. I submit that any government employee who says he can't perform his job under a proposed rule has publicly admitted to being incompetent to hold his position.
There has been a lot of commentary on the use of untrained minimum wage employees in security positions. I recently retired from the Army Reserve with 21 years service and saw a lot of security people (I'm speaking of higher level types, not the S-2 and G-2 folks who have the day to day responsibility for security in military units). They are almost all of them drugstore cowboys and James Bond wannabes. A kid fresh off the French fry vat at McDonald's would be no worse that many of the "professionals" I've met. 

Civil libertarians have a curious tendency to protect the liberties of some by massive violations of everyone else's liberties. In the wake of September 11, one writer lamented the fact that television wasn't presenting any criticism of a military response for fear of losing sponsors. Her remedy? Make it illegal for sponsors to withdraw support of programs. First Amendment? What's that? Suggested alternative remedy: this writer and her soul mates can raise money to sponsor whatever viewpoints they like.

Civil libertarians who want to preserve civil liberties in this time of crisis would do well to start by asking ordinary citizens what liberties they most want protected. I would venture to guess the answers would be:


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Created 2 January 2002, Last Update 02 June 2010

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