Americans increasingly unwilling to surrender civil liberties

ATLANTA — ATLANTA - The last three years have been difficult for thinking patriots - for those of us who believe that this grand democratic experiment demands dissent; for those who believe their duty is to form a more perfect union; for those who cannot forsake liberty in pursuit of security. We frequently have been denounced as traitors.

Shortly after the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft deflected questions about the Bush administration's decision to use military tribunals by lambasting the critics: "Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies."


A few months ago, Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, suggested those who cast presidential ballots for John Kerry are traitors. "If George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins," Mr. Cole declared.

And Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller blasted Americans who were rightly ashamed of the abuses at Abu Graib prison. He announced that he would refuse to join a "national act of contrition" that was giving "aid and comfort to the enemy."


At long last, though, this wave of neo-McCarthyism seems to be receding. Americans may finally be shrugging off a propaganda campaign that sought to frighten them into surrendering their civil liberties. The people of this great nation seem to now understand that democracy is like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

Just a week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, war or not, the Bush administration has no right to hold so-called enemy combatants indefinitely outside the system of civil jurisprudence. Eight justices - all but Clarence Thomas - found that the two-year detention of American citizen Yaser Esam Hamdi, who has been held without the opportunity to challenge the government's evidence against him, was unconstitutional.

The ruling came as an overdue check on the Bush administration, which has used the war on terror as an excuse to curtail civil liberties and conduct the people's business in secret.

Equally important, a recent survey by the Nashville-based First Amendment Center shows that Americans' support for First Amendment freedoms has rebounded to pre-9/11 levels. Shortly after the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, Americans were too ready to curtail basic rights; then, nearly half of the country agreed with the statement, "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees." However, the most recent survey, conducted May 6 through June 6, shows that only 30 percent of Americans now support that view.

The same survey holds interesting news for those politicians who keep bringing back a proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning - a shortsighted proposition supported by people who misunderstand what democracy is all about. By a slight majority, 53 percent, Americans oppose such an amendment, indicating they have a better grasp of this nation's ideals than many politicians. They understand that the flag is to be treasured only so long as it stands as a symbol of the freedom to engage in even odious forms of protest - including burning the flag.

When Abraham Lincoln spoke of this nation as "the last best hope of Earth," he wasn't rhapsodizing over brilliant fireworks displays or long, lazy holiday weekends or midsummer sales at the local mall. He spoke of a grand democratic experiment in which common people would be allowed to criticize the president without fear of persecution; in which Methodists and Muslims could go to school together but each still worship freely; in which every citizen accused of a crime would have the chance to face his accuser in court; in which no citizen, no matter how rich or powerful, would be above the law.

It may be that those ideals are more difficult to hold onto in times of fear and threat and attack from an unknown enemy. It may be that Americans will again shrink from those ideals at the first sign of another terrorist atrocity. But those are the times when those ideals should be most honored.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.