The Most Patriotic Act
by Eric Foner
The Nation magazine, October 8, 2001
The drumbeat now begins, as it always does in time of war:
We must accept limitations on our liberties. The FBI and CIA should
be "unleashed" in the name of national security.
Patriotism means uncritical support of whatever actions the
President deems appropriate. Arab-Americans, followers of Islam,
people with Middle Eastern names or ancestors, should be subject
to special scrutiny by the government and their fellow citizens.
With liberal members of Congress silent and the Administration
promising a war on terrorism lasting "years, not days,"
such sentiments are likely to be with us for some time to come.
Of the many lessons of American history, this is among the
most basic. Our civil rights and civil liberties-freedom of expression,
the right to criticize the government, equality before the law,
restraints on the exercise of police powers-are not gifts from
the state that can be rescinded when it desires. They are the
inheritance of a long history of struggles: by abolitionists for
the ability to hold meetings and publish their views in the face
of mob violence; by labor leaders for the power to organize unions,
picket and distribute literature without fear of arrest; by feminists
for the right to disseminate birth-control information without
being charged with violating the obscenity laws; and by all those
who braved jail and worse to challenge entrenched systems of racial
The history of freedom in this country is not, as is often
thought, the logical working out of ideas immanent in our founding
documents or a straight-line trajectory of continual progress.
It is a story of countless disagreements and battles in which
victories sometimes prove temporary and retrogression often follows
When critics of the original Constitution complained about
the absence of a Bill of Rights, the Constitution's "father,"
James Madison, replied that no list of liberties could ever anticipate
the ways government might act in the future. "Parchment barriers"
to the abuse of authority, he wrote, would be least effective
when most needed. Thankfully, the Bill of Rights was eventually
adopted. But Madison's observation was amply borne out at moments
of popular hysteria when freedom of expression was trampled in
the name of patriotism and national unity.
Americans have notoriously short historical memories. But
it is worth recalling some of those moments to understand how
liberty has been endangered in the past. During the "quasi
war" with France in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts allowed
deportation of immigrants deemed dangerous by federal authorities
and made it illegal to criticize the federal government. During
the Civil War, both sides jailed critics and suppressed opposition
In World War I German-Americans, socialists, labor leaders
and critics of US involvement were subjected to severe government
repression and assault by private vigilante groups. Publications
critical of the war were banned from the mails, individuals were
jailed for antiwar statements and in the Red Scare that followed
the war thousands of radicals were arrested and numerous aliens
deported. During World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans,
most of them US citizens, were removed to internment camps. Sanctioned
by the Supreme Court, this was the greatest violation of Americans'
civil liberties, apart from slavery, in our history.
No one objects to more stringent security at airports. But
current restrictions on the FBI and CIA limiting surveillance,
wiretapping, infiltration of political groups at home and assassinations
abroad do not arise from an irrational desire for liberty at the
expense of security. They are the response to real abuses of authority,
which should not be forgotten in the zeal to sweep them aside
as "handcuffs" on law enforcement.
Before unleashing these agencies, let us recall the FBI's
persistent harassment of individuals like Martin Luther King Jr.
and its efforts to disrupt the civil rights and antiwar movements,
and the CIA's history of cooperation with some of the world's
most egregious violators of human rights. The principle that no
group of Americans should be stigmatized as disloyal or criminal
because of race or national origin is too recent and too fragile
an achievement to be abandoned now.
Every war in American history, from the Revolution to the
Gulf War, with the exception of World War II, inspired vigorous
internal dissent. Self-imposed silence is as debilitating to a
democracy as censorship. If questioning an ill-defined, open-ended
"war on terrorism" is to be deemed unpatriotic, the
same label will have to be applied to Abraham Lincoln at the time
of the Mexican War, Jane Addams and Eugene Debs during World War
I, and Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, who had the courage and
foresight to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964.
All of us today share a feeling of grief and outrage over
the events of September 11 and a desire that those responsible
for mass murder be brought to justice. But at times of crisis
the most patriotic act of all is the unyielding defense of civil
liberties, the right to dissent and equality before the law for
Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia
University, is the author of The Story of American Freedom (Norton).
11th, 2001 - New York City