I was cleaning out some kitchen cabinets and came across two business cards from an FBI agent, from when he came a-knocking twice last year on our front door. The first time none of us were home and his card was slid under our door. I’m a fairly unflappable person – pretty much autism-related difficulties are the only things that rattles me.
But the fact that an FBI agent visited our home, well that made me pause. Twelve years ago when I took on the job that launched my career as a journalist covering Muslims in America (as a correspondent covering the Muslim scene in New York for Islam Online, one month before 9/11 happened), I spoke with my father on the phone, excitedly telling him about my new job.
I had become a mom to Lil D about a year prior to 9/11, and autism wasn’t part of my vernacular yet. And, as much as I loved being mother, I was excited to be working again. My dad wasn’t so enthused. Be careful, he warned me. I don’t want you getting singled out. Be careful of your phone calls, your emails, the articles you write, the interviews you do. You’re a good person, he told me. You are born and raised in this country, you have a husband a child, and you are a good journalist. But your work can be twisted against you.
When you’re young and your career is starting again, fatherly advice like that seems a little far-fetched. Come on. Me? Who’d ever come after me? But here we are, twelve years later — mother to three, married nearly 14 years, husband with a good career, a series of good jobs for myself, still covering Muslims in America, connected to many professional and activist Muslim Americans passionate about elevating the position of Muslims in this country.
And, I’m pretty sure I’m on some TSA lists, due to the number of times I’ve been detained and searched at airports. I’m not as out there as my fellow savvy Muslim American colleagues (gathering the ire of Islamophobes), but we are a family who travels internationally and lives fairly publicly, all of which felt quite normal and fine to me – until the FBI came knocking at our door.
The second time the agent came, I was home alone and had a brief conversation of the agent and learned why he was visiting us. It was a minor thing and quickly explained away (I hope). And, it hasn’t stopped me. Worse has happened to others I know, and it hasn’t stopped them, either, from living their lives and fighting for the causes they hold dear.
But times are different, and laws are different, and there’s no going back from that. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, which I wrote about last year, was again signed by President Obama into law last week for 2013. Zainab Chaudry, vice president of CAIR-MD (Council for American-Islamic Relations chapter in Maryland), wrote about this sobering law, and what it means for all of our civil liberties.
Last Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 into law despite admitting that he “signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.” [See CAIR’s statement]. It is deeply disappointing that the President has once again allowed Congress to restrict his authority to transfer or prosecute detainees at Guantanamo. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, “[The President’s] signature means indefinite detention without charge or trial, as well as the illegal military commission, will be extended. He has also jeopardized his ability to close Guantanamo during his presidency.” Although many of the dozens of prisoners have been cleared for transfer, they too will continue to be held without being charged with a crime.
One such reminder manifests in the form of legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA – an act passed by Congress every year to monitor the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense. More than a year ago, on December 31, 2011, President Obama signed into law the NDAA for fiscal year 2012, or H.R. 1540, amidst a fury of controversy over unprecedented power granted to the military to seize suspected terrorists anywhere in the world, including U.S. soil, and imprison them for an unspecified time without due process.
This behemoth, 1,600 page charter, allotting $662 billion of taxpayers’ money towards defense funding, contained controversial, vaguely-worded provisions that allow for detention of persons – including Americans here at home – indefinitely by the military without trial or military tribunals, and contains implications for abuse of presidential powers by significantly broadening the scope of executive authority with a simple pen stroke.
Specifically, sections 1021 and 1022, reminiscent of Draconian laws, authorized indefinite detention by the armed forces without trial – this, despite the Constitution’s sixth amendment which guarantees right to fair trial for all, and the Posse Comitatus Act which limits governments’ use of military intervention to enforce laws.
Implications of the NDAA, its’ potential consequences, and the subsequent erosion of the diligently-drafted laws meant to preserve and uphold the principles and values our country was founded upon, have all elicited vehement protests in communities across America. Unfortunately, the protests appear to be falling on deaf ears.
On December 4, 2012, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to approve the $631 billion NDAA for fiscal year 2013, except this time with a measure that appeared to attempt to address concerns regarding the indefinite detention specifically of U.S. Citizens and green card holders. The Feinstein Amendment, proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), in part read: “An authorization to use military force, a declaration of war, or any similar authority shall not authorize the detention without charge or trial of a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States apprehended in the United States, unless an Act of Congress expressly authorizes such detention.”
Although it postulated a fair trial only for prisoners who are U.S. citizens or green card holders, the amendment was nonetheless an effort to remedy the Act and make it more Constitutional. However, a Congressional committee eliminated even that provision, thereby making the Act as unconstitutional as last year’s NDAA. When the government can arrest suspects without a warrant, hold them indefinitely without trial or due process, and deny access to legal counseling or admission of bail, we have in effect disqualified the sanctity of the Bill of Rights.
James Madison, credited as the Father of our Constitution, once famously said, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.” If he were alive today, he would have born witness to the grim, sobering reality his words foreshadowed.
Zainab Chaudry blogs at Zainab Chaudry and is the vice president of CAIR-MD.