University of Utah speakers debate war on terror, basic freedoms

Published: Saturday, Feb. 6 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Following the events surrounding the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, the U.S. government moved quickly to enact a law intended to "provide appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism."

This month, Congress will revisit three of the 16 provisions in the Patriot Act. It will be a time for citizens to weigh in on a law that originally involved little citizen input.

According to American Civil Liberty Union President Susan Herman, who headlined Monday's 26th Annual Jefferson B. Fordham debate at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law, the Patriot Act has had many consequences, even costing innocent people their jobs, associations and their abilities to travel freely in and outside of the United States, which puts "the very essence of our democracy at stake," she said.

Herman's points outlined the reasons why Americans should be aware of and care about what is happening at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers where thousands of people are being held against their will because of vague associations with what government has deemed dangerous. The "dragnet," as she calls it, has picked up people all over the world, as well as inside the United States, stripping them of their rights "for no reason."

"There is a tremendous cost to all these broad laws," Herman said, adding that innocent people have been prosecuted for donating to the "wrong charities," not knowing they were associated with terrorist agencies, however loosely defined that may be.

Amos N. Guiora, U. law professor and former lieutenant colonel for Israel Defense Forces, provided a counterargument in the debate. He said that in order to best protect ourselves, we need to identify specific threats, not generalized groups of people.

"The single greatest threat to civil democratic society is posed by religious extremists," he said, adding that the second governmental officials hear of any such leader calling for action in the name of God, that leader should be taken down.

"As important as freedom of speech is, as important as freedom of religion is, we all have the right to live," Guiora said. He proposes government put an end to religious immunity that is granted to religious extremists, specifically in the three monotheistic faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He said certain rights should be limited when it threatens civil society in any way.

Americans have always been told to "trust the government," said Herman, who is also a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School. "But we don't know how a lot of their choices are being made."

Amos recently published a book, "Freedom of Religion-Freedom from Religion: Rights, Conflicts and Obligations," which details how four countries attack terrorism differently.

Both Herman and Amos agreed that open communication between a government and its people would yield better results, and lead to policies that are more understood. A video of Monday's debate can be found online at www.ulaw.tv.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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