Loss of Civil Rights Post-9/11 Alarms Muslims, Legal Experts: Muslims Worry about Profiling, Unjust Detention; Attorneys See Link to Troubling History of Erosion of Liberties. (September 11: A Year Later)

Article excerpt

A year later, the United States is still reeling from the shock of the attacks of Sept. 11. As the Bush administration put the nation on high alert in an effort to protect Americans from further terrorism, the crisis spawned unprecedented expansion of governmental powers.

Among the first was the USA PATRIOT Act (October 2001), a double acronym for the unwieldy "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism."

The act gave sweeping authority to government agencies to interrogate, detain and hold suspects without charge--essentially the curtailing of constitutionally protected civil liberties in the interest of national security. It was followed by the creation of the Transportation Security Agency (February 2002), which took over the former role of the Federal Aviation Administration in providing airport and airline security; and by expansion of almost unlimited powers to the Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency and office of the Attorney General.

The most recent (and almost universally snubbed) creation of the Justice Department has apparently died a quiet death because even its initial supporters soon had qualms about it: "Operation TIPS" (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) called on postal workers, utility companies, truckers, librarians and private citizens to "volunteer" to formally report any suspicious activity that could be linked to terrorism.

Many Americans are tolerant and even supportive of the government's intent to stem terrorist attacks and identify major players in worldwide terrorism. Despite misgivings, most citizens apparently believe that war--even an undeclared war waged without clear parameters or goals against unspecified "evildoers"--may require the limiting of some civil rights enshrined in the Constitution.

But the very attempt to "Unite and Strengthen America" has meant that civil liberties for some Americans have been, at best, put on hold while they have been subjected to suspicion, harassment and even physical violence. Perhaps no group has experienced the backlash from 9/11 more than the U.S. Muslim community.

In late June, more than 500 Muslims from seven Midwestern states met at the University of Missouri-Kansas City to address issues surrounding Sept. 11. The Kansas

City conference, titled "Muslims for Peace and Justice," was one of several similar gatherings around the country designed to promote an accurate perception of the authentic teachings of Islam among their non-Muslim neighbors and to promote diversity. Among the workshops in the three-day conference, sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America, was a session on civil rights and how the events of Sept. 11 have affected the day-to-day lives of Muslims.

Dick Kurtenbach, director of the Kansas City office of the American Civil Liberties Union and one of the workshop presenters, outlined the eclipse of civil liberties in the post-9/11 climate and noted an increase in cases brought to the ACLU's attention by members of the Muslim and Arab communities.

Kurtenbach said he believed the United States today is "at the same level of historical error" in relation to the Arab and Muslim community as it was during World War II "when tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were interred in detention camps with no evidence of threat." From the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when lives and careers were ruined because of blacklisting and threats of communist involvement, to the `60s and Vietnam with spying on citizens and confiscation of records, he said, "we have often witnessed our government at its very worst."

The United States has "made very, very serious mistakes very often, and it usually happens when we feel threatened," he said. Linking the USA Patriot Act to those earlier mistakes, Kurtenbach said that while "its aim is to make us safe, in reality it makes us less free. …