liberal ["liberalis" L - suitable for a freeman, generous; "eleutheros" Gk - free] (adj) generous, open-minded, not subjugated to authoritarian domination; (n) one who believes in liberty, universal suffrage and the free exchange of ideas. elite ["eslire" Fr -- to choose fr.L "eligere" -- choose] (n) the choice part; best of a class; the socially superior part of society.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Anthony Romero and the ACLU

Last night, Wednesday, I brought my ESL students to a special program at the college. It was an assembly featuring a lecture by Anthony Romero, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Of course, it's the end of the semester and everybody's exhausted, probably even including Romero. I would have brought my students to the assembly no matter who was speaking--even if the speaker were the Manager of the local McDonald's.

Romero started off talking about his own humble beginnings as the son of a waiter. Neither of his parents spoke English nor had they even gone to high school. Anthony was the first member of his family to ever attend college. This scored highly on the bona fides register with my students.

Romero focused on the importance of citizen involvement, engagement, and activism at the local level for the preservation of our democracy. He talked a little bit about the history of the ACLU, including the Koramazu case, as well as some other civil rights cases, eventually leading up to Hamdi.

Then he launched into twenty-minutes of very measured but damning criticism of the Bush administration and the post-9/11 "War on Terror." (Interestingly, Romero did not challenge the authenticity of the War on Terror. He used the term throughout his address to refer to the Bush Administration's current anti-terrorism policy). At one point, Romero even said, "We want the Bush Administration to fight the War On Terror, we just insist that they do it within the law, respecting our democratic legal procedures."

His criticism was limited to the prisoner abuses in the Padilla and other cases, particularly in denying hearings and trials before judges for the Guantanamo detainees. He also attacked the detentions and abuse at Abu Ghraib as being further indications of the lawless arrogance of the Bush Administration's policies in fighting the War on Terror.

Then he turned to the NSA eavesdropping situation, and his criticism escalated, not only toward the Bush Administration and Alberto Gonzales, but toward Congress, too. Romero was angry that the Bush Administration felt they could conduct warrantless wiretapping on Americans without going to Congress, or even the FISA courts, for approval.

Romero said that in the sixties, the radicals and protesters wanted to put an end to one particular police authority abuse: the "say so" bust. This is when, he said, the police grabbed a protester, a hippie, an immigrant, a negro, or anyone else they didn't like and dragged them into jail. When the victim then asked why he was being detained, the police could answer, "Because I say so." This, to Romero, is the poison seed that will spread and choke off all freedom, civil liberties, and democratic respect for law if not rooted out and crushed.

His complaint is that the NSA wiretapping program is the ultimate "say so" bust. The Administration put up no credible legal defense for it, other than "inherent powers."

But Romero stopped there. As sickened as he is by Congress, he did not join the call for Bush's impeachment. He insisted that the proper course of action is to find out the facts about the domestic wiretapping program before legislating for or against it.

This reflects his implicit support for the War on Terror. He said he didn't want any domestic wiretapping, but it would be slightly palatable if Congress and the FISA court were monitoring and approving the operations.

Romero also said that the 9/11 Commission Report was credible because of the bipartisan composition of the Board. He felt that the Commission's recommendations should be implemented. He didn't say anything about Bush not testifying under oath.

All in all, it was an inspiring and provocative presentation. My students got into it and even asked a couple of questions in the Q&A at the end. We saw that the ACLU is not a reckless or incautious, radical organization. It is a well-founded, principled and democratic institution. In the end, Romero reminded the students that the ACLU can't protect our rights without real democracy, and real democracy depends on ordinary people getting involved in the political process and making their voices heard.


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