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The Civil Rights and Human Rights Dilemma

Elaine Cassel
Date Published: 
January 01, 0001

I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But for people of any political persuasion who care about civil liberties or human rights, the lot of Democratic presidential contenders is abysmal. I – a watcher of the Bush administration’s dismantling of civil liberties in the name of a global, and eternal, war on “terror” – have watched Democrats in the Congress vote in the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act (which has received little press coverage) with virtually no debate and even less dissent.

On our side

Rep. Dennis Kucinich is the only one who could be trusted to curb the incursion of civil liberties. Though he voted for the PATRIOT Act, he has had a change of heart, at least as to some of its provisions. He co-sponsored the House bill that would deny funding for snooping on library records and warrant less searches of homes and business and business records (the so-called “sneak and peek” provisions of the Act). The rest of the serious contenders – Dean, Kerry, and Clark – could not be trusted to curb governmental powers. Dean had some interest in civil liberties, but they are eroding the more serious his candidacy becomes. His switcheroo position on the death penalty, so politically correct for mainstream American, showed how shallow is his interest in human rights.

Kerry and Clark, decent men both, can’t be trusted to be committed to civil liberties or human rights, if for no other reason than that they are men of war. I mean, war is sometimes justified, to be sure, but these are men who were warriors for a living. Now they are politicians. What do you think? Do you think they will put freedom above winning whatever war they get us involved in? Do you think they would care about the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay? The innocent people on death row? I am sorry – it just does not go with the mindset.

The ultimate problem with the curbing of civil liberties post-September 11 is that the laws that were enacted overwhelming in Congress after the tragedy (and even before, if you count the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which Clinton presided over) are not going to be easily repealed for several reasons. Among them, are a Republican majority (and likely to be an even stronger majority after the 2004 elections), few of whom will break ranks in the service of the Bill of Rights.

Sad state

An even more important reason is that governmental power serves those who are in power. Perhaps a Democrat may take a more benign stance in prosecuting Muslims and Americans under the Patriot or Homeland Security Acts, but the laws will not be repealed. For that president, of whatever stripe, will certainly want the same sweeping powers that Bush had. Think about it. Why would a ruler give up power unless forced to do so (King John and the Magna Carta come to mind, but I don’t see a revolt of the middle class building anytime soon).

Sad to say, I see little hope for progressives who want to cast a meaningful vote in the upcoming presidential election. I voted for Nader in 2000. Not because I did not like Gore, I did. But I wanted Nader to get some votes. And in my home state, Virginia, Bush was a shoe-in. I felt good voting for Nader.

I would not feel good voting for any Democratic candidate now, except Dennis Kucinich. And I don’t see him getting the nomination. Would I sit out the election and not vote for Dean? No, of course not. I would do anything (anything legal, John Ashcroft, in case you are reading) to see Bush and his peace-hating, power-grabbing, human rights smashing, civil liberties crushing cronies run out of Washington.

But I am not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen. When I first typed the title of this article, I mistakenly wrote “Election 2204.” A Freudian slip, no doubt. But I imagine it will be that long before Americans wake up and realize what a mess we have made of our country. A change in government takes a change in heart in the people. We aren’t near there yet.


Elaine Cassel practices law in the District of Columbia and Virginia, teaches law and psychology, and monitors the Bush team’s dismantling the Bill of Rights on her web site, Civil Liberties Watch ( Her book on the administration’s war against civil liberties, The Other War, will be published in the spring of 2004 by Chicago Review Press.