Panel examines new era of liberty
Last year's terrorist attacks have pushed the issue of civil liberties to the forefront of American society. The question of whether civil liberties should be sacrificed in order to protect the safety of America presents a fine line for the government to toe in this new and changing world.
Last Monday's panel discussion, "Civil Liberties in a New America," tackled some of these constitutional issues. The panel was organized by First Monday, a nation-wide annual campus-based program of the Alliance for Justice, which focuses on issues of social justice and encourages students to become active for social change in their college communities.
The majority of the panelists felt that the government was abusing civil liberties. Daniel Levine, the Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of History, began the discussion by emphasizing that "civil liberty is not a fringe issue. Civil liberties are mainstream."
He provided historical perspective about the importance of protecting civil liberties in order to prevent two types of tyrannies: the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of fervor, in which "dissent is dangerous." He alluded to racially divided times in the country's history when speaking out could endanger one's life.
"The surest way of tyranny," he said, "is suppressing opinion. Freedom of expression must be protected; the alternative is ever widening suppression and ever increasing tyranny Civil liberties prevent tyranny-it's the only basis for democratic government."
Associate Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union Dorcas Gilpatrick, who also spoke at Bowdoin on the 9/11 anniversary, addressed the problems arising from the war on terrorism, including the government's detainment of individuals without formally charging them. She claimed the Bush administration was showing "contempt for the rule of law" by holding over one thousand detainees of Middle Eastern descent without filing any charges against them.
In addition to the current political issues addressed in the panel discussion, the participants encouraged students to get involved in causes that they believe in. As Ramsay Fifield, a prison rights advocate, said, "Find that thing that is deeply wrong and set out to right it."
Panelist Eli Pariser, a recent college graduate and founder of the 9-11peace.org website, was an example of activists the participants wanted to see more of on campuses. Over the past year, his website has garnered the support of over half a million people worldwide in an effort for peace. Pariser read a moving email he recently received from a group of students in Belgrade. The students' email related their experience of the war in Bosnia and the killing of innocent civilians to the potential war in Iraq.
Yet the overall theme to the discussion remained the need to protect against civil liberties violations occurring in America due to the war on terrorism. Fifield reminded students, "the first line of defense is you. If you don't use them [your civil liberties], you lose them."
Jerry Edwards '04 ended the discussion with a comment to the panel that questioned the government's attitude toward civil liberties violations in the name of combating terrorism. He referred to the phrase, "United We Stand" that has been formed as a public response to the 9/11 attacks. He rhetorically asked, "What does that mean? We're for our country, but is our country for us? What you're all talking about this is important stuff."