Why I belong to the ACLU

Last night, on the eve of the inauguration, I received a call from the American Civil Liberties Union asking for a donation – yes the infamous and oft-reviled ACLU, of which I have been a card-carrying member since 1996.  The reason I am a member, which I get the chance to explain whenever anyone learns of my membership is simple: like them or hate them, and there are many of the ACLU’s positions I do not agree with, the mission of the ACLU is one that I believe all Americans agree with to some degree or another:

to preserve the  protections and guarantees of our First Amendment rights-freedom of speech, association and assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion supported by the strict separation of church and state; our rights to equal protection under the law – equal treatment regardless of race, sex, religion or national origin; our rights to due process – fair treatment by the government whenever the loss of your liberty or property is at stake; and our rights to privacy – freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into your personal and private affairs.

I have on my desk a copy of the Bill of Rights.  It awes me.  Until I had to study it for a professional license last year, I really hadn’t thought about it much in years.  I wish everyone would take the time to study and ponder it.  I wish I had earlier.

In recent years, and with good reason – in defense of terrorism and to ensure our “domestic tranquility”, one of the primary purposes of the Constitution  – we have allowed various governmental agencies to infringe somewhat on our First and Fourth Amendment protections.  It’s really a balancing act, the fulcrum of which shifts from time to time to meet the existing situations.  It may be reasonable in times of national emergencies to allow less personal freedom, but the critical issue is just how much is enough or appropriate. 

This responsibility rests with all of us.  But because we are busy with work and family and vegetating in front of the television, we typically aren’t very active in monitoring the balancing act so long as we are not individually affected. We understand why we must take off our jackets and shoes when we go through security at airports and have agreed that we cannot carry weapons on board planes.

The risk is we go too far, allow too much.  Benjamin Franklin said “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”  The question is what is an essential liberty.  This is where we should, but most often don’t, monitor.  And this is why I belong to the ACLU, as unpopular as it seems to be in this area.

The ACLU has, on its web-page, the following pledge we can sign electronically:

I pledge to join with over 400,000 ACLU members and supporters to help ensure that the President, his administration, and our leaders in Congress fulfill their duty to preserve, protect, and defend our Constitution.

By reaffirming my commitment to the American values of justice and liberty for all, I am enlisting in a powerful movement to defend our freedoms against assaults on our civil liberties.”

I signed it.  Whether or not you choose to sign it is a personal decision and, that decision is neither right nor wrong.  It is the kind of thing guaranteed by the First Amendment.  But, think about it, and think about the balancing act between essential freedom and security and ask yourself where the fulcrum should be and what we are doing to make sure it is in the correct position.

[This was written on the day of the sewcond inauguration of George W. Bush.]

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