Privacy SOS

What happened to the “Land of the Free”?

In our fear-ridden society, the “Land of the Free” has gone the way of the “Home of the Brave,” according to George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

In the January 13 Washington Post, he enumerated ten ways we have become like the authoritarian nations whose practices the US State Department routinely deplores in its annual rights reports. 

As he describes, the US now engages in:

• Assassination of US Citizens

• Indefinite Detention

• Arbitrary Justice

• Warrantless Searches

• Secret Evidence

• War Crimes

• Secret Court

• Immunity from Judicial Review

• Continual Monitoring of Citizens

• Extraordinary Renditions

Many – even most – Americans have been conditioned to think that these powers are necessary to keep us safe and why should they care since they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, the only category on Turley’s list where they would be directly impacted is the “continual monitoring of citizens” (and, it should be added, non citizens). 

But here too, the web of security checks and proliferation of surveillance devices that have become part of daily life might seem a reasonable response to the danger we are told we face. And so, without much reflection, we become what we condemn elsewhere.

However, there are still signs of push back, sometimes when and where we least expect them. 

In today’s Boston Herald, conservative columnist George Will takes on the Suspicious Activity Reports program under which some 800,000 law enforcement agents across the country gather information "that could indicate activity or intentions" related to terrorism. Will describes what happened when two men who like taking photographs were “caught” doing so by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. 

Shawn Nee was taking pictures of “controversial new subway turnstiles” when he was detained, searched and asked if he was “planning to sell the photos to al-Qaeda.”  When he said he was going to exercise his constitutional right to remain silent, he was told, "You will be on the FBI’s hit list."

Shane Quinton, who likes taking pictures of industrial landscapes at night, was using a camera on a tripod to take photograph an oil refinery at 1 AM when he was yanked off the sidewalk and held in a squad car for 45 minutes. 

George Will refers to incidents like these as "government overreaching in the name of security."

Under the government’s Suspicious Activity Reports initiative, it is not just photographers who face being detained, questioned and possibly ending up in a government database. People seen sketching buildings, taking notes in public, and bird watching have had similar experiences.  

A few years after the 9/11 attacks, we featured the experience of a couple going bird watching in western Massachusetts in our compilation of stories about the impact of post 9/11 security measures on ordinary lives. 

Susan and Jack Wright were at Barton’s Cove looking through binoculars at birds when they were surrounded by a state trooper and four or five local police and nature rangers. 

After being questioned at length, they were told that there had been a report of a "suspicious person" in a hooded sweatshirt walking through the area. They then asked Jack to make a footprint in the snow so they could compare it with the footprint of the "suspect."

Eventually the Wrights were free to go.  On their return home they came across a person they assumed must be “the suspect” – who turned out to be a student taking pictures of birds for his college photography class. 

As Susan Wright said,  “Later on, I remember thinking thank goodness the police stopped us and not this kid – even though he was not Arab looking, just because he was young, he could have gotten in a lot of trouble…And if you were Arab, and interested in wildlife, it would be awful – you would be arrested in a second for being interested in birds.”

In the nine years since the Wrights were detained at Barton’s Cove, the filing of Suspicious Activity Reports has become something that all police everywhere are expected to do.  In many cases, these reports are entered into Fusion Center databases and become part of the new “Information Sharing Environment.”

In the words of Susan Wright, “What is happening to our country?”

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.