- Throughout US history in times of crisis, infringements on civil liberties by the government are not just to be expected — they’re also distressingly popular with the public.
- In the almost two decades since 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations both massively expanded law enforcement powers that come with little accountability, with the support of both parties.
- Now President Donald Trump has those powers, and he has a demonstrated history of hostility to civil liberties even in peacetime.
- Fears of a terror attack, cyberattack, or a war with Iran are on people’s minds following the drone strike assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Thursday.
- The combination of the US’s history of surrendering civil liberties in the name of safety, expansive government surveillance authority, and Trump in the White House is cause for Americans to be vigilant in maintaining their own rights — no matter what happens next with Iran.
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Throughout US history in times of crisis, infringements on civil liberties by the government are not just to be expected — they’re also distressingly popular with the public.
In the almost two decades since 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations massively expanded law enforcement powers that come with little accountability, thanks to the support of lawmakers in both parties. Now President Donald Trump has those powers, and he has a demonstrated history of hostility to civil liberties even in peacetime.
Fears of a terror attack, cyberattack, or a war with Iran are on people’s minds following the drone strike assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Thursday. It’s unclear at present what the US strike on Soleimani will lead to, and if it will be anything resembling a war, conventional or otherwise.
It’s too soon for hard polling data to determine the level of public concern, but on Friday major city mayors gave speeches on their ramped-up security efforts, Democrats made a long-overdue push for a new war powers authorization, and the #WorldWarThree hashtag was trending all day. Trump‘s most anti-interventionist Republican ally, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, said to Fox News he thinks “there will be a war with Iran.”
These certainly demonstrate a modicum of fear of potential worst-case scenarios.
But there was reason to be concerned even before Soleimani’s killing.
The combination of the US’s history of surrendering civil liberties in the name of safety, expansive government surveillance authority, and Trump in the White House is cause enough for Americans to be vigilant in maintaining their own rights — no matter what happens next with Iran.
Trump has shown hostility toward civil liberties and relies on fear, even in peacetime
Trump has a well-documented history of raging against the press, attacking ethnic and religious minorities, and curbing the rights of marginalized groups. His record is worrying, said Gene Policinski, president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute.
“We’ve got every reason to be concerned because of Trump’s aggressive posture about civil liberties,” he told Insider.
And then there’s the worry that the public would willfully hand over their own rights under the guise of bolstering national security.
Policinski says that in 2002 — in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks — four in 10 Americans were OK with limiting college professors from criticizing military policy. That same year, his organization found that almost 50% of Americans said the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment go too far. That number dropped to under 20% by 2012, but in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, it shot back up to 39%. This suggests that fear makes people surrender their rights to feel safe.
“Trump has shown a disregard for the importance of civil liberties when measured against safety and security. That seems to be his appeal to the base,” Polcicinski said. He adds that Trump is “a master” at using promises of “safety and security to drive political victories and to set policy.”
But Policinski also notes that “there is a strain in America that seems willing to surrender its liberties and civil rights when faced with this kind of military threat or when fear is abroad.” He cites Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the “red scare” witch hunts conducted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s as past examples of the curbing of civil rights during times of crisis.
“I think [Trump] poses the same kind of threat that we’ve seen periodically to the country, [but] he has new media tools to influence public opinion much more dramatically,” Policinski said, adding that this “combination gives Trump and his administration a greater ability to exploit the issue of fear.”
Trump’s ‘authoritarian’ streak combined with Bush and Obama-era surveillance powers could prove disastrous
In the event of war with Iran or a major terror attack, Baher Azmy, the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, tells Insider that given the Trump administration’s “authoritarian” streak, he believes “they would mobilize all the rhetoric and power of executive wartime footing to demonize and potentially criminalize dissenters.”
Azmy thinks Trump would rally his base on “full-throated but false patriotism” and he expects “surveillance and harassment of dissenters” with a particular focus on Iranian-Americans. Azmy worries that Trump may use a conflict in order to push his anti-civil liberties agenda at home.
Julian Sanchez — a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute who focuses on civil liberties, national security, and intelligence surveillance — says he too is concerned about “broad targeting of American Muslims” and adds “Trump’s avowed contempt for ‘political correctness’ and his penchant for generalizations about large groups of people suggest the White House and attorney general are unlikely to resist the impulse to cast a wide net.”
Sanchez adds: “Trump has frequently and loudly complained about the reluctance of his own Justice Department to launch spurious investigations of his political adversaries, and it’s not hard to imagine that reluctance being weakened in the aftermath of attacks.”
He also warns of Bush and Obama-era surveillance practices that include “indiscriminate collection of communications metadata” and “an array of expanded authorities that involve little or no judicial supervision.” These include National Security Letters which Sanchez says allow FBI agents to “obtain a wide array of highly sensitive and revealing financial and telecommunications records, come with gag orders on the recipients” and don’t require court approval.
Then there’s also Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA), which was passed in 2008 and reauthorized under the Obama administration, that Sanchez said allows the NSA “to target foreigners outside the US without specific judicial approval and enables the government to intercept the communications of Americans in touch with foreign targets.”
Infringements on civil liberties are popular when the public is terrified
Following the devastating attacks of 9/11, Americans placed a premium on security and were generally willing to endure intrusions on their privacy to achieve safety. According to Pew Research, in late 2001 a full 55% of Americans agreed that “in order to curb terrorism in this country it will be necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties.”
What followed soon after was the passage of the Patriot Act, which gave federal law enforcement sweeping new authorities to search and surveil Americans in the name of fighting terrorism. Despite its initial intentions, in the two decades since its passage, it’s been used far more often to prosecute drug dealers than terrorists.
We now know that many of the restrictive responses to 9/11 and subsequent attempted attacks were essentially security theater — arduous tasks that gave the illusion that forces above had it all under control. Think of the Transportation Security Administration’s still-required removal of most passengers’ shoes, the ban on liquids of more than three ounces, and the 95% failure rate of its agents to detect bombs and weapons smuggled onto planes.
But at the time these policies were implemented, the public saw them as necessary because the government told them they were (and still do).
What is to come in the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination is uncertain. But Americans would be wise to remember the mistakes their government has made over and over during periods of upheaval in our history, and not allow the threat of terror to further deteriorate their civil liberties — because it’s unlikely to make us any safer.