The Price Of Privacy

Is the anti-terrorism bill worth the hassle?

Can the U.S. government and law enforcement officials successfully walk the fine line between national security and an individual’s right to privacy? That’s what many civil rights leaders are questioning, saying the anti-terrorism bill recently signed by President George W. Bush could lead to increased racial profiling.

Among other things, the anti-terrorism bill gives law enforcement officials the power to survey and detain people suspected of terrorist activity. The legislation also permits the monitoring of e-mail and other types of online communications. Attorney General John Ashcroft told the U.S. Conference of Mayors on October 26–the day that the legislation was signed–that FBI and Justice Department officials would use the new anti-terrorism bill to broaden the dragnet to catch suspected terrorists and their associates.

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups say the new law would lead to violations of civil rights because U.S. immigration officials can now hold U.S. noncitizens certified by the attorney general as suspected terrorists for as long as a week before having to charge them with any crime. Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the ACLU, contends that the anti-terrorism bill goes beyond measures needed to combat terrorism. “The bill will bring back the power of the FBI and CIA to put under surveillance innocent Americans,” she says.

With racial profiling a concern for many ethnic groups, Murphy believes the number of such incidents could easily increase. “We know from our experience with racial profiling…that the government isn’t always fighting on the part of the African American community,” she says.

Mohammed Magid, director of the ADAMS (All Dulles Area Muslim Society) headquartered in Sterling, Virginia, and other religious leaders also oppose the new law and spoke out against the recent detaining of hundreds of Muslims by U.S. law enforcement officials. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Magid says. “We would like to know the conditions of these people.”

There are supporters of the legislation within the civil rights community, however. Hugh B. Price, president of the National Urban League, favors the new law, provided that law enforcement officials follow strict guidelines. “I think that until we know we’ve effectively destabilized and defeated whoever is doing this, aggressive measures are warranted,” he says. “But racial profiling and stopping people based on their appearance is constitutionally offensive.”

Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the NAACP, remains concerned, but points out that since September 11, there is a vital need for increased security. “I recognize, like everybody else, the need to protect civil liberties,” he says. “But at the same time, in order to be effective, [law enforcement officials] have got to question people, and, in some instances, detain people until the questions are adequately answered.”

Whether we’ll see increased incidents of racial profiling or scare tactics similar to those used by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House on Un-American Activities committee in the 1950s, or the FBI COINTELPRO-type espionage remains to be seen. But it would appear that the groundwork is being put in place.

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