While I was in the army in 1955, stationed in Europe, I visited a 76-year-old cousin of my grandmother who lived in Switzerland. She was the “black sheep” of the family because she was a pacifist and had left the United States after the First World War in protest against the country’s militarism.
Although she had a lot of wacky ideas about religion, sex, and the meaning of life, she was the only relative I had ever met who had acted and lived according to her own ideas and in fierce defiance of convention. She has been a great inspiration throughout my life and at one point influenced me to consider leaving the United States as she had done. However, in spite of my admiration for her independence, I stayed -- for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the Bill of Rights.
I think the Bill of Rights is the greatest document this country has ever produced. And yet it has been constantly under siege, from various political stances, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently. Just now, as I write this, I am thinking of the votes cast by Rhode Island’s two U.S. Senators in support of a bill permitting the military to arrest suspected terrorists and keep them imprisoned indefinitely without trial. These senators represent the people of a state with a long history of civil liberties. They have frequently been supporters of the Bill of Rights. When such legislators are openly violating its principles, for whatever reasons, we know we have a lot of work to do.
A country proclaiming that its people have the freedom to speak their minds and to meet peacefully with anyone they wish, that the practice of religion is each citizen’s choice, that unreasonable searches and arrests are not permitted, and that equal protection of the law is required for all of its citizens has its heart in the right place. But that heart needs to be protected from the fear promoted by the snake-oil salesmen and false prophets who always afflict public affairs. That protection is what the ACLU is all about.