Current Issue

Sept. 14, 2011

Vol. 112, No. 1


Thoughts on a tragedy: Lessons learned in the decade since 9/11

Published in the September 14, 2011, issue

Access to justice

By Anthony D. Romero ’87

Photo: Richard Corman

Anthony Romero ’87 is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

In the decade following the attacks of Sept. 11, the Bush administration, followed by the Obama administration, and often with the cooperation of Congress and the courts, restricted access to justice for victims of civil-liberties and human-rights ­violations and limited the availability of effective remedies for these violations. These efforts have denied victims of human-rights violations their day in court and shielded responsible officials and corporations from ­liability.

A strong judiciary is fundamental to the protection of our liberties. Over the past 10 years, on matters of civil liberties and national security, power has shifted away from the judiciary toward the executive branch. In the course of seizing greater power for itself, the executive branch often has sought — and received — the cooperation of Congress to emasculate the judiciary. Perhaps most surprisingly, federal courts largely have been willing accomplices in limiting their own power. A series of decisions in recent years has chipped away at access and placed a tremendous and often insurmountable burden on plaintiffs. Consequently, entire classes of people not only are denied access to justice, but may not even be aware of the injustices to which they are subject.

Illustration: Francesco Bongiorni

For eight years, the Bush administration sought to diminish access to justice in order to shift power to the executive branch. It frequently invoked unchecked executive authority and national-security concerns as reasons why the courts’ reach should not extend to the Oval Office or to other, undisclosed locations.

The Obama administration’s record on access to justice in matters involving national security has been mixed, at best. President Obama largely has taken the baton from President Bush on a range of issues, including military commissions, detention, state secrets, surveillance, and targeted killings.

A vigorous democracy demands checks and balances. When judicial oversight is weakened and access to the courts is diminished, our delicate system of checks and balances is disrupted. If the Obama administration continues to limit access to justice and to assert broad, virtually unchecked power on issues of national security, there is a great danger that it will enshrine within the law policies and practices that support a dangerous notion that America is in a permanent state of emergency and that core liberties must be surrendered forever.
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4 Responses to Perspective

Peter Suedfeld '63 Says:

2011-09-13 09:23:43

Let me quote: "The Constitution is not a suicide note."

Leanne Tobias *78 Says:

2011-09-13 11:09:30

Chris and I attended the Woodrow Wilson School at the same time, so I especially appreciate his wise words. In this piece, Chris has drawn lessons from September 11 that will allow us to move forward together more powerfully and effectively. Chris's advice on information sharing and coordination within and between groups is relevant in numerous settings, ranging from the family, to the workplace, to companies and government agencies, and between allies.

John Mason '66 Says:

2011-09-27 09:30:02

The sad events of September 11 have been used to underwrite the war in Iraq, with its fiction of WMD's; the erosion of civil liberty, under the peculiar use of "homeland" to refer to our country; and the use of torture by Americans, with expressions of contempt for the Geneva Convention. It is painful to contemplate.

John McKenna '57 Says:

2011-09-27 13:51:07

Because I teach theology, I refer my comments about 9/11 to God with Moses in the Exodus tradition of Israel's history among the nations in God's creation. Moses, it is recorded, had five objections to the Voice interacting with him in the event of the Burning Bush in Horeb. They were: 1) Who am I to go? 2) Suppose I do go and do what you have commanded me, they will want to know your NAME. What shall I tell them? 3) They will not believe me? 4) I do not speak well! 5) Send somebody else! I think as God's servant and Israel's prophet, Moses embodies with his objections the history of Israel among the nations as witness to the Living God the Lord is as the Great I-AM He is. Listening to all the questions and conjectures about God from those who survived and witnessed the event of 9/11 in our nation's history, I heard many of the same objections to Him. I believe we need to understand that He as the One He is as the Great I-AM He is will not be who He is without us, and thus I seek to understand why the event occurred just as Moses and Israel has to seek to understand why the Voice in the Burning Unconsumed Bush is who He is yet among us, who He is as our Savior and Judge. I trust PAW readers will want also to seek Him in these times!
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CURRENT ISSUE: Sept. 14, 2011
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