During the 15 years Nadine Strossen has served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), some of our most basic freedoms have faced unprecedented challenges.
In the early years of her term, Strossen had to deal with the fallout of the first Iraq War, the Rodney King beating, the Oklahoma City bombing and expansion of the federal death penalty. But these days, in the wake of what she calls "the man-made disaster of 9/11 and the overreaction to it by the president and the executive branch," the ACLU is busier than ever.
Strossen, who will visit San Diego for a speaking engagement on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, said she's most concerned about recent revelations regarding "the completely unwarranted spying on American citizens" by government agencies and "a president who has the hubris to defend not only the secret programs but [has] lied about [them] to the American public."
(Bush maintains that the Constitution affords him broader-than-normal power to spy because the country's at war.)
The ACLU recently placed two full-page ads in The New York Times comparing Bush to Richard Nixon.
"I think there is a very strong comparison between the two, in terms of having such an exaggerated sense of the power of the executive branch to ride roughshod over the rights of people who aren't even suspected of any crimes at all other than political dissent," she said. "To me, that links up directly to Martin Luther King.
"Martin Luther King should be remembered not only for his towering contributions to social justice and racial equality but also as a victim of government spying and abuses of power by the FBI because of disagreement with his ideas."
Strossen points out that King was punished for attempting to exercise his First Amendment rights and draws a direct analogy to the monitoring of citizens Bush perceives to be enemies of the U.S.
In addition to providing one of the loudest voices of opposition to the Bush administration's policies, the ACLU continues to fight battles on a variety of fronts, which span the gamut of hot-button issues and include gay rights, the death penalty, drug policy and immigrant rights.
Yet asked to gauge the current status of civil liberties in America today, Strossen is oddly optimistic.
"Overall, I would have to say they are more in jeopardy but not necessarily worse [off]," she said, noting that she's "pleasantly surprised with the backlash to the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties." Strossen said the number of "card-carrying" members of the ACLU has nearly doubled since 9/11, swelling the organization's ranks beyond the 500,000 mark.
Looking ahead, Strossen said she fears losing the balance previously provided by the Supreme Court but says she remains more optimistic than ever about the American political system.
"Every time something bad happens to civil liberties, there is a reaction against it and a correction is put in place," she said, noting that "eternal vigilance" is required to ensure that pendulum continues to swing.Nadine Strossen will be the keynote speaker at the sold-out 18th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All People's Breakfast at the San Diego Convention Center on Jan. 16.