Keeping an eye on Big Brother

The increasingly omnipresent Big Brother was scolded Friday by its lawful mother, the federal court system, for overstepping its constitutional right in the war on terrorism. U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled the Justice Department, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, had not proven the need to withhold the names of the more than 1,000 people rounded up by the government following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. She gave the government 15 days to release the names.

In her decision, Kessler wrote, “The first priority of the judicial branch must be to ensure that our government always operates within the statutory and constitutional constraints, which distinguish a democracy from a dictatorship.” And it is this democratic concept supported by law and grounded in the ideals of Americans that will help stave off the enigmatic Big Brother from coalescing into a juggernaut of invasive control.

But this ruling, although a victory for civil liberties and good reason to collectively release our breath, should not be seen as the end-all to recent infringements on American freedom, perpetrated by our own government, that have been gaining rapid momentum following the tragic terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

Some of the most critical battles over civil liberties are now being waged in the courts and on Capitol Hill. For instance, the George W. Bush administration recently proposed Operation Terrorist Information and Prevention System. The program plans to recruit 1 million volunteers to act as spies and informants against their neighbors. TIPS, if enacted by Congress, would enlist the work of cable installers, utility workers, letter carriers and others who have some access to Americans private lives. They would report what they deemed abnormal behavior to the government, which could then be acted upon. If that doesn’t sound Orwellian, then you haven’t read “1984.”

Making matters worse is other legislation – both enacted and pending – that, coupled with things such as TIPS, could give the government odious control and invasive insight into our lives. Take for instance the Patriot Act, perhaps the most far-reaching. Under this law the government can, among other things, put recording devices into places of religious sanctity such as the confessional booth or the neighborhood mosque. Also, there is a provision in the proposed Andean Trade Bill that would give the U.S. Customs Service virtual immunity from lawsuits related to racial and religious profiling.

The sacrifice of civil liberties goes on. A personal computer located in the confines of your home has no legal right of privacy if it is connected to the Internet. The government contends that since people do not always know what they are downloading, or if they are being hacked, they should not have a reasonable sense of privacy on their computers. Therefore, computers are not protected by the Fifth Amendment. Any e-mail, document or other piece of information stored on computers connected to the Internet can be used by the government.

Yet many Americans still blindly believe: “If I’m not doing anything wrong, then why should I worry?” They should worry because the government has the power to determine what is right and what is wrong. But what is right today can be made wrong tomorrow. That means that the dossier the government created on a citizen could be the evidence against that person if the law changes.

So while Friday’s ruling is a sign the encroachment of the government on the individual rights and freedoms of American citizens is finding oppositional force within the legal system, it is still important that all Americans vigilantly defend their rights. Many current college students grew up with the Saturday morning slogan of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle,” which is true. But the other half is standing steadfast upon that knowledge, turning wisdom into action. Otherwise we might have to redefine what it means to be an American.