Though many (even the lawmakers who voted for it) were wary of the poorly thought-through, hastily written and seldom-read Patriot Act that literally changed America in the aftermath of the tragic 9/11 attacks, few suspected that it would be allowed to fester, because of the superlative checks and balances built into the system.
Instead, a decade later, knee-jerk justifications skirted the United States Constitution as Americans remained bewildered by the systematic erosion of their rights. Manipulated masses lived under the illusion of safety, whereas emergency measures introduced to catch criminals ravaged the lives of ordinary and law-abiding citizens.
Susan N. Herman, who became president of the American Civil Liberties Union in 2008, draws on her legal background to provide an assessment of what scared Americans did, and continue to do, to their country and to themselves. As a constitutional scholar and professor at Brooklyn Law School, Herman writes from a position of authority, and this is much more than a dull tome.
She describes in chilling detail what actually happened to dozens of individuals who were falsely accused of terrorism. These included Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon attorney falsely suspected of involvement with terrorism in Spain; Lavoni T. Kidd, a University of Idaho football player arrested on the pretext that he was needed as a "material witness" after he converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdullah Al Kidd; and Erich Scherfen, an Apache attack helicopter pilot and War for Kuwait veteran, who also converted to Islam. Ironically, Scherfen was a commercial airline pilot who was actually placed on the infamous no-fly list — a truly Orwellian twist — denying the man his livelihood even as he was collecting government pay for serving his country honourably. Hundreds of "Middle Eastern-looking" men and women were arrested, many jailed for months at a time without trial and deported for routine immigration violations.
The book is replete with unsettling stories, but what actually shocks the reader is the utter waste of resources in creating a largely irrelevant dragnet. By creating unhindered surveillance programmes and empowering security personnel with nearly limitless authority, mistakes were bound to occur.
Herman masterfully discusses what happens when constitutional protections against government abuses are abandoned. She provides serious food for thought: Expressing one's opinions, making charitable contributions to questionable organisations or even reading certain types of books checked out from a local library could lead to arrest even if this would be a breach of the First Amendment.
Rummaging through private lives, collecting information on bank accounts and even asking — without ever going to court — internet service providers to report which websites and pages someone visited are the types of activities that the East German Stasi specialised in, not Ivy League graduates who have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States. No-fly lists, blacklists and watchlists were what weak Communist regimes did to their people to control minds and bodies.
Such behaviour was condemned at the height of the Cold War and ought to be similarly condemned now, since keeping people from expressing their views, reading certain materials, and denying them the right to fly when they do not pose a threat to anyone are unbecoming of free nations.
Lest we conclude that all of this was George W. Bush's legacy, we ought to understand that Barack Obama regrettably continued his predecessor's ill-advised policies on secrecy. The "system" in place boasted that presidential prerogatives were correct even if the legislative and judiciary branches of government have and ought to rise above scare-tactic politics to satisfy immediate concerns.
Taking Liberties justifiably concludes that laws such as the Patriot Act actually undermine democracy itself. The author is not against security needs in a world unsure of what kinds of values free citizens should enjoy, but she quotes various authors and America's founding fathers to remind citizens that they, and not elected or appointed officials, are the government. She also calls for added vigilance. "If you don't do anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about," the popular saying goes, especially for poorly educated men and women who only too willingly volunteer to trade some "liberty for security".
In the words of Benjamin Franklin — a father of the nation in the true sense of the word, a man who knew what terrorism meant, and one of the greatest Americans who ever lived — those who "give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety".
Beyond the abuses inflicted on the many individuals discussed in this must-read book, Americans have failed to understand, at least so far, that they were the real victims. They were the collateral damage as their brilliant Constitution was battered. They were the real victims of Islamophobia.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (2012).
Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy By Susan N. Herman, Oxford University Press, 276 pages, $24.95