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The State of Civil Liberties

New York: May 22, 2002

A Speech by Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

It is an honor to be here with you this evening.

Today, I want to talk to you about the state of civil liberties in America. If I were to describe it in a word, I would use precarious. Nine months after the unprovoked, horrific terrorist attacks on our homeland, few of us understand, or even want to hear about, the major changes that have taken place in our nation's laws, policies and regulations. These changes, made in the immediate, emotional aftermath of the attacks, are blurring the distinction between waging war and doing justice. As such, they undermine our liberty without effectively protecting our security.

I was just one week on the job as Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union when the terrorists struck the World Trade Towers. The ACLU's national headquarters is located at the tip of Manhattan, not far from what is now known as "ground zero." From this terrible vantage point, staff members watched with horror as victims hurled themselves from the flaming buildings, and then as the two giant towers collapsed and thousands of innocent Americans were brutally murdered. As the destruction spread, our staff and everyone else caught downtown on that awful day fled the area in fear and desperation, chased by swelling clouds of smoke and debris.

I only mention this because the ACLU's critics never tire of describing the organization as "out of touch" with reality. Nor do they weary of accusing us of preaching from "on high," from a safe and comfortable, even privileged, distance. If that has ever been true - and I sincerely doubt it ever was - it is definitely not so in this instance. September 11 is seared in our memory as only a firsthand experience of sheer horror, fear and insecurity can be.

YET - at the same time, we know what many Americans intuitively know - that the terrorists were targeting not only people and buildings, but also our values - the values of freedom, liberty and equality that are the defining characteristics of our democracy. That is why in poll after poll Americans have indicated that they are concerned BOTH that the government will do too little to increase SECURITY, and that it will do too much to restrict LIBERTY.