Civil Rights and the Right to Know

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof 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, andthe anthrax incidents afterward, is "They tell us to be alert, but theydon'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 youget a package like that, you're dealing with a very stupid terrorist. Shamefulhow people don't take pride in their work any more.

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

So here it is. You notice everything. You identify every potentialthreat, everywhere, all the time, and have a plan to deal with it if somethinghappens. Always. You no longer have a right to go through life in a fog oncruise control. You never really did, but the penalties before now were notsevere - your career was lackluster, your achievements were nil, other peoplepicked up the slack because you underachieved, they paid the bills when yournegligence got you in trouble, but there were no really badconsequences. Now your inattention might get you killed. So you spend all yourtime, 24/7/365, observing and thinking. Gerbils eat, sleep andreproduce, and go through life without thinking. If you want to live that way,don't complain about other people "dehumanizing" you. You did ityourself.

Here's What We're Up Against

On a recent plane change at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, my wife had a soreback so we got a ride on a motorized cart. These things are about the size of asmall car and emit a constant beeping sound. Our trip was a short one betweentwo adjacent concourses. At least a dozen times, the driver had to ask people toget out of the way. These people were so oblivious to what was going on theydidn'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 whohave 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 thesake of titillation or idle curiosity. I was watching the news one night when abulletin broke in, announcing that the grand jury in the Jon-Benet Ramsey casehad decided not to return an indictment. I sat there for a few minutes doing thegoldfish thing, then I turned to my wife and said: "Do you realize whatjust happened? They interrupted a news broadcast to tell us that nothingwas happening!"

Months before September 11, a news story revealed that our intelligenceagencies had been tracking Osama Bin Laden's cell phone. He immediately stoppedusing 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 theimmediate region had any reason to know about the murder, in case it was thework of someone who might strike again. And people in that area have alegitimate interest in being sure their police function competently. Nobodyelse 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 outabout them, your right to know at the time is nil. It will not hurt yourcapability as an informed citizen in the least if you find out about an event 72hours or a week later.

Presenting information is journalism. Informing the public may mean holding astory until there is time to run it properly and completely, running informativestories in preference to sensational ones, and making sure errors andcorrections get the same exposure as the original story. Presenting stories forsensation, shock value, novelty, or emotional impact is entertainment. Both journalism andentertainment are protected by the First Amendment, but one is serious, evensacred, and oneisn't.

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

A number of books have come out challenging the official account of the death of Osama bin Ladin. I think this is great! The more conflicting information is out there, the more confused our adversaries will be. If I were President, after every high profile Special Ops mission, I'd get a literary agent for every key player and have them write a book. They can keep all the profits. The only restrictions would be they can't reveal seriously sensitive information, and the books have to be seriously in conflict with each other.

September 11 and Civil Rights

First, let's deal with some non-issues. Being asked questions is not aviolation of your rights. If an identifying characteristic narrows the possiblechoice of suspects, police have a right to use it. If a murder victim were foundin my town tomorrow with a geologist's pick embedded in his skull, you can betthe 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 orracial, nothing changes. If you want to call that "ethnic profiling,"be my guest. If you confuse labels with rational arguments you don't haveanything to contribute to this discussion.

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

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 someby 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 ofa military response for fear of losing sponsors. Her remedy? Make it illegalfor sponsors to withdraw support of programs. First Amendment? What's that?Suggested alternative remedy: this writer and her soul mates can raise money tosponsor whatever viewpoints they like.

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

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Created 2 January 2002, Last Update 15 January 2020

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