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Concern over loss of treasured freedoms, big brother state, in US
16 Aug, 2011 08:46:38
CHICAGO, August 16, 2011 (AFP) - Sweeping new policing powers, the tacit acceptance of torture and a backlash against Muslims that has grown fiercer 10 years after the September 11 attacks have made the United States a less free and open society.
The erosion of fundamental American values along with massive -- and what some see as disproportionate -- expenditures on homeland security and two wars have allowed Al-Qaeda to accomplish at least some of its goals.

Most Americans don't seem to mind.

A majority of them consistently tell pollsters they are willing to give up some civil liberties in order to make the country safer and only about a quarter say torturing terror suspects is never justified.

"The reason that I think a number of people haven't responded as aggressively to things like warrantless wiretapping is because they think it won't happen to them," said Andrea Prasow, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch's US program.

"History shows that's not true. Once government has a power they won't give it back."

Congress is currently considering legislation that would allow indefinite detention without trial -- something that used to be as unimaginable as a US president saying "damn right" to waterboarding and other forms of "enhanced interrogation."

"That's not where the US was 10 years ago. It was a leader - not perfect - but a leader in promoting human rights," Prasow told AFP.

"Terrorists seek to change a nation or a people, and that has happened."

"The genie is out of the bottle"

The response has not been proportional to the threat, said Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union.

There have only been a handful of successful attacks on US soil since 9/11, the most devastating of which was the 2009 attack on Fort Hood in Texas by an army psychiatrist that left 14 dead and 29 wounded.

That pales in comparison to the toll from drunk driving, which is involved in a third of the more than 30,000 traffic deaths every year.

"We're talking about a threat that will always exist, but doesn't threaten our existence," Wizner said.

"And yet we treat it as if it's equivalent to world war."

The war on terror granted law enforcement unprecedented power to monitor the email, phone calls, financial transactions, library records and Internet browsing of citizens and foreigners alike and store them in massive databases.

Some of those "data sweeps" have reportedly gathered everything from hotel records on more than 300,000 travelers to Las Vegas to the names of anyone who took scuba diving lessons in the San Diego area.

Nowhere has the intrusion of security into daily life been more obvious than in airports -- the Al-Qaeda target of choice -- where a controversial new pat-down policy made a minor hero of a man recorded telling a screener "don't touch my junk" last year.

Increased surveillance was both inevitable and necessary in the face of ongoing threats, said Ron Marks, a former CIA official now at George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute.

"We're not going to go back to before 9/11. The genie is out of the bottle," he said.

"We're going to have to be more intrusive. The question is the degree of intrusiveness and what is the oversight of that."

There is "tremendous sensitivity" among federal investigators over the handling of data gathered in intelligence sweeps, Marks said.

"I'm more concerned about public perceptions than what law enforcement do," he said, pointing to a "loss of flexibility" in tolerating divergent opinions and a deep mistrust of Muslims and Arabs.

Many Republican politicians have both fueled and exploited that mistrust as a "campaign strategy," said Dawud Walid, director of the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The most glaring example is the hysteria drummed up ahead of November's mid-term elections over an Islamic cultural center being built near Ground Zero in New York. Legislation banning Sharia law has also been introduced in over a dozen states.

"Our political discourse has become openly Islamophobic and it is accepted and not challenged by a large percentage of the population," Walid said.

"It's scary to think where this is going."

'The circus continues'

The burden of America's near decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has also been "borne very unevenly," said Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at Brown University who co-directs the Cost of War project.

Former president George W. Bush implemented massive tax cuts, leaving future generations to pay for much of the nearly $4 trillion cost of the war on terror.

The elimination of the draft means that the burden of multiple and lengthy deployments has been left to 2.2 million volunteers who largely come from rural areas and lower-income families.

That makes it easy for the remaining 300 million Americans to forget that the nation is at war, especially given that just four percent of news stories are about Iraq or Afghanistan.

"That's not necessarily a measure of what most Americans are consuming on television," Lutz noted. "That's the news.. (Most are) watching Jersey Shore and Bachelorette. So the circus continues."

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