Civil Rights and Liberties After September 11, 2001 in the United States


Civil liberties are the fundamental freedoms for the public in a free country that limits the amount of control the government has over its subjects. As such, the government is limited in exercising its powers so as not to interfere with for example freedom from arbitrary arrest, or detention, freedom of lawful assembly, freedom of association, and movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on gender, religion, sex, and race and made it a criminal offense. The bill was principally passed to end racial segregation in America and invalidate the Jim Crow Rules after a lot of pressure from civil society. This paper will seek to explain the change, is any in civil liberties that were prompted by the September 11 2001 terrorist attack on the US (Ishay, 2004)

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Before the attack, America was first moving away and forgetting the ear of racial discrimination that marked the better half of the 20th century. With the passing of the Civil Rights Act, America was moving towards racial equality and better civil liberties. Unfortunately, the events of September 11 have in one way or another dealt a blow to the progress in civil liberties made so far. The government has been accused of exploiting the terrorist threat to curb civil liberties. This is best demonstrated by arbitrary arrests of both Americans and foreigners of Arab or Islamic descent. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the government traded off civil liberties for national security (Ishay, 2004). The organization also accuses the White House of taking on a secrecy policy that does little to justify the actions against civil liberties committed by American security forces in and outside the US. Nojeim (2001) summarizes the conduct of the government as “secrecy, erosion of checks and balances, and circumventing long-standing personal privacy protections by muddying the important distinction between foreign intelligence gathering and criminal investigation.”

The USA Patriot Act signed into law in October 2001 was also established in response to the happenings of September 11. The act which simply translates to Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism gave a sound basis for intruding with civil liberties that target Americans and foreigners of the Islamic faith. The act allows the use of secret evidence in legal proceedings against a suspect. In addition to this, the act also allows secret home searches by security forces on top of the fact that suspects found guilty and sentenced are not allowed to appeal against the ruling.

The developments following this terrorist attack can be compared to past events in history that the government has acted in the same manner. Gage (n.d.) reminds me of the happenings after the Palmer raids in 1919. He says that the government responded by arresting thousands of immigrants and anarchists and jailed them without court proceedings against them. It is also during World War 2 when Japan attacked the US that Americans of Japanese origin found themselves in trouble. They were arrested and placed in detention camps without the slightest whiff of crime (Lazarus, 2002).

Experts in this field (Dempsey, n.d.: Baker & Losco, 2008) believe that civil liberties are compatible with the fight against terrorism. Dempsey (n.d.) suggests the government use a strategy that would:

  1. Focus on criminal activity rather than political and religious suspicions;
  2. Narrow the search of suspects rather than widen it;
  3. Follow correct judicial procedure;
  4. Assessing the credibility of the process by outside organizations.


Baker, R., and Losco, J., AM Gov 2009 edition, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gage, K. and Dempsey, J. (n.d.) National Crises, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties: A Historical Review. Web.

Ishay, Micheline, The history of human rights: from ancient times to the globalization era, Los Angeles: University of California, 2004

Lazarus, Edwards, American Civil Liberties Post-9/11: Are They Truly in Jeopardy and are They Relative or Absolute? 2002. Web.

Najam, T., Threats to Civil Liberties Post-September 11: Secrecy, Erosion of Privacy, Danger of Unchecked Government. Web.

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