On March 5, 2012, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the Northwestern University Law School about the legality of using lethal force against potential “terrorists.” Holder defended the use of drones and air strikes to kill and assassinate anyone who poses an “imminent threat” to US interests. Furthermore, he stated that even American citizens abroad can be targeted in such a fashion without any due process or legal oversight, as was the case with Anwar-al-Awlaki.  Such efforts to legalize extrajudicial programs follow a historical pattern of restricting rights.  Eager to preserve national security, many past administrations had taken solid—but profoundly unjust and unconstitutional—moves that deliberately restricted constitutional rights and liberties of certain individuals, groups, and ethnicities.

In the book “War and Liberty,” Geoffrey Stone contends that the “United States has had a long and unfortunate history of overreacting to the perceived dangers of wartime.” Such overreactions excessively limited civil liberties, and were later regretted.  Some historical examples, as stated in “War and Liberty,” include the Sedition Act of 1798 which, signed by President John Adams during the confrontation with France, made it “a crime for any person to make any statement against the president, the congress, or the government of the United States with the intent to bring them into contempt or disrepute.”  During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus—which allows citizens who are detained to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment—on “eight separate occasions, with tens of thousands of Americans imprisoned by military authorities without any review by a court of law.”  During World War I, President Wilson launched an aggressive campaign to censor any criticism of his wartime policies by “prosecuting some 2,000 individuals for expressing their opposition to the war or the draft.”  During World War II, President Roosevelt ordered the interment of more than “110,000 individuals of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were American citizens.” Faced with the threat of Soviet espionage and communism, the government—influenced by McCarthyism—instituted “loyalty programs, biased investigations, blacklists and criminal prosecutions to ferret out and punish those suspected of disloyalty. This paranoia lead to the creation of The House of Un-American Activities Committee.”  During the Vietnam War, the Johnson and Nixon administrations initiated secret programs of surveillance and infiltration in order “to disrupt and neutralize those who opposed the war, and attempted to prevent the publishing of the Pentagon Papers.”  In the “War on Terrorism,” President Bush, through the Patriot Act, approved the indefinite detention of hundreds of noncitizens, closed deportation proceedings and authorized spying on Americans.

All these infringements on civil liberties have been a regular part of U.S. History.  In fact, the contagious pattern of restricting liberties is aptly resonated in the Obama era of “change,”  in which American citizens could not only be detained indefinitely—but also killed through “secret” memos and justifications only known to people like Holder.  President Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a former professor of Constitutional law, also debilitated the requirements of due process enshrined in the Constitution which states that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”  The rights of having an attorney and a fair trial have also been diminished––making an armed drone the judge, jury and the executioner.

I agree with Stone that today’s public should not be cowed into submission and must demand the protection of civil liberties for everyone.  Since one of “the traditional bulwarks of civil liberties” stet educational institutions, we—as students of George Mason University—must protect and understand the essential importance of civil liberties.  We cannot grant the Executive Branch carte blanche to tailor the law to justify secret programs which condemns people to death far from any battlefield without any charges, judicial review or public scrutiny.  There can be no legal or moral justification for violations of constitutional liberties and human rights.  We must learn from our history and not repeat the same mistakes again because once liberties are lost, they are hard to regain.  We have to stop this institutionalized pattern of civil rights infringements—and save the endangered life of due process and constitutional liberties.