Letter from America: Assessing civil liberties a decade after 9/11

The last two weeks in America have been dominated by TV specials, seminars and remembrances assessing the lasting imprint of 11 Sept on everything from airport travel and religious tolerance to government architecture and public health. Clearly, much was changed on 11 September 12, 2001. But sometimes it takes a round-yeared anniversary — and its demand that we evaluate, poll and measure — to recognise the subtler changes in values such as free speech.

Here is one revealing data point: In its 2002 State of the First Amendment survey, conducted just months after 11 Sept, the First Amendment Center found that 49 per cent of Americans felt the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights it guarantees. Of that group, 55 percent said America should be monitoring religious groups, and in particular (47 per cent) Muslims.

In an event held this week to mark the 10th anniversary, a panel of scholars at the First Amendment Center noted that such rhetoric has cooled since then.

Americans may be more accepting of limits to civil liberties today than before 11 September — just as government institutions are certainly more willing to push the envelop on surveillance and detention — but we are, at least, not feeling as reactionary as we were on 12 September 2001. That’s something.

An anniversary poll conducted by the Pew Research Center produced similar conclusions. 40 per cent of Americans this year  said they believed the average American would have to give up some civil liberties to curb terrorism in America. Five years ago, 43 per cent of people believed that. 49 per cent did one year after the attacks — and a starling 55 per cent of people felt this way only weeks after the attacks.

A majority of people now also oppose government attempts to monitor everything from credit card purchases to phone calls and emails.

Attitudes towards Muslims may be the odd exception to this cooling-off, as anti-sharia and anti-mosque movements seem to have taken off on a political momentum of their own the last two years, untethered to 11 September. (Pew’s same poll found that Republicans and Democrats feel quite differently about the threat of rising domestic Muslim extremism, underscoring the topic’s potential to become a new cultural wedge.)

Public opinion about the value and vulnerability of civil liberties tells us much about what government can expect to get away with. But the anniversary also offers a separate opportunity for appraising exactly what government has done.

On the eve of the anniversary, the ACLU last week released a report warning that the US may be “enshrining a permanent state of emergency in which the nation’s core values are subordinated to ever-expanding claims of national security.” They warn of the endless “war on terror,” with its lack of accountability and suspect “counterterrorism” tactics. Religious and racial profiling and government surveillance have become commonplace in the US as a result.

Numerous other groups who feel this way likely will wait until next month to say so. They haven’t wanted to step on what was supposed to be a moment of solemn unity this past week. They’ll wait, instead, for the next landmark: The Patriot Act was signed into law 10 years ago on 26 October (and it was passed by Congress just a shocking six weeks after the attacks, with mind-boggling speed when one considers what it takes today to get an uncontroversial appropriations bill through the House and Senate).

That date, as much as 11 September, ushered in a new era for American civil liberties, enshrining much of the official reaction that might have also cooled with time. Many of the controversial bill’s provisions have since expired, but it’s equally a testament to how America has changed in 10 years that, whenever the act comes up for renewal, elected officials unflinchingly stamp their approval, despite howells from civil liberties advocates. 10 years later, they all still fear being seen as “soft on terror” (which, come to think of it, was never a common epithet before 11 September).

This is Emily Badger’s last Letter from America for Index on Censorship