AN ACQUAINTANCE, KNOWING of my position as president of the American Civil Liberties Union, asked me to tell her what the ACLU was doing these days. “But don’t tell me about that Guantánamo stuff,” she said. “I’m so sick of hearing about that. Why should I care about those people when they’re not even Americans?” I started to explain that the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 antiterrorism measures do affect Americans, including her, but she waved me off, insisting that all of that had nothing to do with her.
This woman is not alone is assuming that the War on Terror does not affect law-abiding Americans, or even that all “that Patriot Act stuff” ended when George W. Bush left the White House. But she is wrong. Her own rights and those of many other ordinary Americans—and even the democracy she takes for granted—are compromised by antiterrorism strategies unleashed after September 11, 2001. She could be one of the hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans the FBI has been spying on using the broad net of the Patriot Act and supplemental powers; her banker and her stockbroker, among many others, have collected financial and other personal data about her to lodge in government databanks, ready to trigger an investigation of her if the government happens to connect some dot of information to her dots (even if she’s done nothing wrong); her computer geek neighbor might be one of the innumerable telecommunications workers and librarians whom the FBI has conscripted to gather information on hundreds of thousands of occasions, perhaps about her friends or acquaintances—and then ordered not to tell anyone anything about their experience on pain of criminal prosecution; her nephew could be the computer studies student prosecuted for providing “material support to terrorists” (a crime punishable by up to fifteen years, imprisonment) because he served as webmaster for a website posting links to other people’s hateful comments; her son could be the college student detained and interrogated for packing his Arabic-English flash cards to study during a plane flight; she could find herself unable to complete an important business or personal trip because her name was incorrectly placed on a No Fly list,