ACLU past president calls on local Jews to champion liberties

Since Sept. 11, the federal government's move toward secrecy, its quashing of individual rights and its embrace of racial profiling have produced a moment in history in which civil liberties are rapidly disappearing, says an American Civil Liberties Union spokesperson.

Once gone, there's very little chance they'll ever come back, contends Davis Riemer, a past president of ACLU of Northern California.

Reimer delivered that message to members of Alameda's Temple Israel during a Jan. 22 lecture sponsored by the Reform congregation.

"The platform is there for a virtually permanent eradication of civil liberties because you are in a virtually permanent state of war," Riemer said. "And once there, those things that are casualties of war — truth, openness and individual freedom and liberty — are gone for good."

Considering the history of Jewish persecution here and abroad, Riemer said American Jews have a larger stake in the outcome of the current crises than most Americans. And like many ACLU leaders, he has been making the rounds of public gatherings recently to get the word out.

"Every time anything happens, people point a finger at the Jews," said Riemer, who is not Jewish. "It's just astonishing. This society is as racist a society as there is on the globe. If nothing else, that demonstrates the necessity for…an organization such as the ACLU — so that the dominant majority does not get its way."

Almost as soon as the Bush administration planned its response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the ACLU began devising its own answer. Since then, the organization has claimed several victories, but Riemer emphasized that the war for civil liberties is a long way from being won.

He views the enactment of the Patriot Act as particularly troubling. Passed by the Republican-led Congress and signed by President Bush just six weeks after Sept. 11, the 342-page act grants sweeping powers to the federal government to investigate, arrest and detain individuals considered a threat to national security.

While Republicans, led by Attorney General

John Ashcroft, applauded,

civil liberties activists denounced the act as a dangerous extension of the powers of the FBI to intrude into routine criminal investigations, citing national security concerns.

For instance, if the FBI finds a person to be even a remote risk, the agency no longer has to meet reasonable standards for its investigation, according to Riemer. Instead of applying for a search warrant through a local judge, the FBI can apply for a warrant with any judge in the United States — including judges who know little about the political or social circumstances of the suspect's region.

Then, with warrant in hand, the FBI can arrest and detain a person without a trial, and without notifying anyone.

"We find it intolerable," said Riemer. "That the attorney general can order the incarceration of hundreds and hundreds of Middle Eastern men and not tell their families they've been arrested and not give their names to the general public is intolerable."

"I remember when I was in college in the '60s looking back on the 1950s and asking, 'Who really acts more tyrannical here, Joe McCarthy or the Soviet Union?' I found very little difference. And today, if a government may do what I've just described, what country does that sound like? Argentina, Romania? And yet that is the description of the United States of America."

He drew parallels between the current climate and the McCarthy era, when members of Congress teamed with the FBI to spotlight so-called communists who were of little threat to the country.

"The concept promulgated by the Bush administration is that in dealing with terrorism we are at war," said Riemer. "The problem with that is that it's a war against an abstract concept. It's not a war against a nation state. And as such it is not possible for 'terrorism' to surrender."

In contrast to the McCarthy-era, however, this time the ACLU has pledged to do its utmost to protect its membership and the larger population. Back then, the group and many others stayed in the background of public discourse. As a result thousands of Americans — many of them Jews — were imprisoned or denied work.

"If you were to say how has the ACLU changed and strengthened for today's fights as a result of the '50s, it would be to look back and realize that we did not do what we were called upon to do."

"To us the question was: May a government entity deny a group of people the right to speak because of their political beliefs?" Riemer said. "The answer is no. Because of this, many Jews felt that we had abandoned them, which wasn't true. Our point was one of political liberty."