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Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today, by Wendy Kaminer

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Free for All: Defending Liberty in Ameri

Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today

It is often argued that the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001, forever changed American society. However, a stronger argument can be made for the idea that the response of the American government to those attacks has made even greater changes — by systematically undermining American civil liberties. Which is worse, the disease or the so-called cure?

Title: Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today
Author: Wendy Kaminer
Publisher: Beacon Press
ISBN: 0807044113

•  Easy to read and informative
•  Clear logic and clear ideas allow her to make her points very easily
•  Criticizes people on both the Left and Right

•  No index

•  Anthology of articles from The American Prospect
•  Covers a wide range of civil liberties issues
•  Specifically addresses the undermining of civil liberties since the terrorist attacks


Book Review

Wendy Kaminer, a columnist for The American Prospect, regularly writes on topics relating to civil liberties and has recently published Free for All, an anthology of her articles from that magazine from the late 1990s through early 2002. The fact that many were written before the terrorist attacks serves to underscore the fact that the assault on civil liberties is nothing new; but those earlier articles do come with notes or other additions to provide more context in light of recent terrorism.

One might wonder why civil liberties are under attack when the United States is supposed to have been founded as a land of liberty. According to Kaminer, two key factors play a role in this. The first is that liberty serves as a leash on those in power, preventing them from doing whatever they want. Thus, those who do have power have a tendency to resent that leash and try to reduce its strength. The second factor is simple fear — and there was certainly an abundance of fear after September 11. When people feel less secure, they also feel less willing to accord basic freedoms to others:

    “...it was hardly surprising that the administration was granted most of the broad, unaccountable police power it sought (and what Congress didn’t give, the Justice Department took). People were terrified: According to a survey conducted in the fall of 2001, one-third of New Yorkers favored the internment of people suspected of being “sympathetic to terrorists.””

I earlier described the undermining of civil liberties in the United States as “systematic” — that word was chosen deliberately. A consistent goal for many in the government seems to be the concentration of more and more power in fewer and fewer unaccountable hands.

One of the least obvious instances of this was the granting to the attorney general sole discretion to monitor conversations between federal prisoners and their lawyers. Some objected to this, but many found it reasonable that the government have this capability in order to prevent jailed terrorists from communicating with their colleagues on the outside. There is just one problem with that:

    “This regulation was not necessary to prevent criminal conspiracies between lawyers and clients: Before it was promulgated, federal agents could seek a court order authorizing a wiretap on an attorney/client conversation. The regulation’s primary effect was to increase the power of the attorney general, at the expense of an already weakened judiciary.”

Why should the administration be trusted with such unaccountable power? Why should the administration be permitted to engage in actions without having to explain and justify those actions to an independent judiciary? This is especially problematic given that exactly this system of checks and balances is in many ways a cornerstone of the American democratic system.

Free for All: Defending Liberty in Ameri

Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today

Other examples of this trend were the decisions to open up the door to military tribunals and to grant the ability to conduct secret searches on Americans without an obligation that suspects actually be informed. All of this has occurred in the name of enhancing security, but no one has demonstrated that the terrorist attacks occurred because we enjoyed too much liberty, or because the executive branch had its hands tied by being forced to explain and justify its actions to others.

Why should fewer people wield more power to keep us secure when past problems weren’t due to those people having too little power in the first place? Why should the executive branch be granted more independence from outside monitoring when the existence of such monitoring hasn’t been shown to have contributed to the success of the terrorists?

These are the sorts of questions Kaminer tackles with her characteristic sharp wit and equally sharp logic. She also addresses a variety of civil liberty issues, including abortion, free speech, religious liberties, flag burning, gay marriage and more. She writes in an easy-going, conversational style befitting magazine articles, and her book can be read either in small bites or in one session.

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