Our Fragile Political Rights
I have over the years become aware how fragile our political rights are. Originally, I was convinced that they were a bulwark against arbitrary behaviour by governments interfering in the lives of indiviuals and groups. They are after all enshrined in our most precious documents of laws. Life, experience, study of our country's history and that of other countries has made me more cynical of the actual protections these much revered laws offer under circumstances of crisis, fear and hatred in our Society. These are the circumstance when we need them the most. Governments seem more than willing to set aside and undermine our "Bill of Rights and Freedom" in hasty response to such a state. Worse still, we as citizen so easily accept such a violation of our rights by government.
I just finished reading two interesting articles which illustrate this. The first is an article about Fred Korematsu, an American citizen, of Japanese heritage, who challenge the legality of the law to intern Japanese American during the second world war. He lost in the Supreme Court (to their shame) and he had to wait 40 years to have that reversed and himself vindicated. This lead to the official apology for the internment and some reparations for the suffering it caused.
In an atmosphere of fear and hate the American government failed to defend the rights of Japanese Americans, instead they set them aside, and did them grave harm in an act of group punishment.
The second article was about the American government's hasty fearful response to the events of 9/11. The American government under the leadership of Attorney General John Ashcroft began to round up people, citizens and alien residents alike, for reasons as shallow as "they appeared middle eastern" or had a muslin sounding name. They were jailed and tortured and deprived of the rights we take for granted such as speaking to an attorney. It is a scary story that the shallow American press never really pursued and informed the public of these disgraceful detentions. The article spells some of the detail. It bears reading. It is an article about a group of the detainees now suing those responsible for the harm they did.
It seem our political rights and freedoms, ensconced in law, are not a great bulwark against encroachment by government in an atmosphere of fear, hatred and racism.
We experienced this in Canada during the October Crisis 40 years ago. The Federal Government at the request of the Quebec government, enacted the War Measures Act, which allowed the police to set aside the rights of freedoms of citizen in order to do their investigations. People were arrested an detained without bail at the will of the police. There rights were denied. Ironically,it was one of our most liberal Prime Ministers, Pierre Elliott Trudeau who called out the military and activated the War Measures Act. He had been convinced by a fearful Quebec government that Quebec was facing an immanent insurection by the FLQ group which had kidnapped a Quebec cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte and a British diplomat, James Cross. They were making demands of the government and threatening to kill the two. Sadly, Pierre Laporte was killed.
There never was a threat of an insurrection. There was only two small groups of radical Nationalists (not more than 20 individuals) and not the 1000 cells of FLQ radicals , mentioned,all across the province. I shall never forgive Trudeau, who I generally admired, for giving into the fears of Quebec politicians who had a police problem and not one of national security.
I lived in the United States during the October Crisis. I was outraged on such a high handed action of the government to set aside basic rights. I used to say to my American friends that Canadians basically trust government and Americans basically distrust their government, would riot in the streets if there goverments set aside their consitutional rights.
(Here you can learn about the October Crisis from the CBC Archives )
(Here is an interesting exchange between some reporters and Trudeau. Here he uses his famous statement "Just watch me." In his controlled but arrogant manner he defends his actions. It is interesting to see a politician actual debate an national issue in such a sponstaneous encounter. I can't imagine an American politicial doing this. Trudeau was a unique politician for many reasons.)
How wrong I was. After 9/11 the Bush Administrations continually undermined the rights of Americans, the case against Ashcroft et. al. is just one such instance.
Sadly, the Obama administation, which once held promise to be a liberal administation has done little or nothing to rectify this erosion of American political rights.
IN Canada and the United States we need to stand ready to defend our rights and freedoms more vigorously than we do. When they are abridged by government is not time for polite debate. It is time fill the streets with protest and bring government to a halt until our rights are restored.