“Let’s stop worrying about people’s rights.”
Sadly there are dozens of junctures in American history from which that shameful quote might spring.
It could date as far back as 1798 when President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it illegal to criticize the U.S. government.
It could come from the 1870s when Southern Democrats used violence to bar black voters from the polls and Northern Republicans looked the other way.
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It could have been said in the 1940s when Americans put Americans in concentration camps, or in the 1950s when Joe McCarthy saw red everywhere he looked, or in the 1960s when J. Edgar Hoover sat listening to Martin Luther King’s phone calls, or, also in the ’60s, when the Supreme Court gave police the power to stop and frisk (and harass and intimidate) without warrants or probable cause.
It could have been said on any number of occasions, but it was actually said just last week on Fox “News,” where Sean Hannity convened a panel to discuss the terrorist attacks in Paris. Fox is the First Church of the Perpetual Indignation, so you can guess how that went.
Dr. Gina Loudon, identified as a “psychology expert,” claimed “80 percent” of the mosques in America advocate violence. Coincidentally, about the same percentage of facts spewed by Fox “experts” turn out to be pure equine excreta.
Hannity, meantime, worried that a Syrian refugee might go into a crowded theater and start shooting people at random. Right. Like we need Syrian refugees for that.
But it was left to Bo Dietl, a former New York City cop, to cross the line from the simply stupid to the downright chilling, as he called for mass surveillance of mosques. Unconstitutional, you say? “Let’s stop worrying about people’s rights,” he said.
It is a seductive invitation. When you are scared – and Americans seem to live in a state of permanent terror – you run toward anything that promises a quick resolution of whatever has you frightened. In such an atmosphere, “rights” can seem a frivolous abstraction and expedience can feel like wisdom.
The irony is, that’s precisely when expedience is most dangerous – and rights most important. In light of all the overreactions that stain American history, all the lives ruined and lost because we disregarded guarantees that supposedly define us, Dietl’s words should make thinking people cringe. Especially given how often acts of expedience and the abridgment of rights have proven needless and wrong.
We supposedly hold sacred the values inscribed in this nation’s founding documents. Yet every time the world says “Boo!” some of us are pathetically eager to toss those values aside as if they were suddenly a burden too heavy to bear. But if the things that make America America are so easily sloughed off – if they are that unimportant – then what, exactly, is it we’re fighting to defend?
Why does “America” even matter?
Sept. 11 damaged and destroyed iconic buildings and took thousands of lives. But it also shredded the Constitution and made America unrecognizable to itself. The government tortured. It disappeared people. It snooped through innocent lives. It created a secret “no-fly list” of supposed terrorists that included many people with zero connection to terrorism, at least one of them a U.S. senator; you could never find out how you got on the list and there was no effective procedure for getting off. It also gave the president unilateral power to execute American citizens suspected of terrorism without trial or even judicial oversight.
And after all that, here comes Bo Dietl. “Let’s stop worrying about people’s rights,” he says.
Here’s a better idea. Let’s start.
Contact Leonard Pitts Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.