Commentary: Our disappearing civil liberties

Spot quiz: What do South County home-school parents, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the American Civil Liberties Union, accused terrorists at Guantanamo, and the U.S. Supreme Court have in common?

Answer: They all are worried that the United States Constitution is in danger.

They have reason to fret. Ever since 9/11, the Constitution — our nation’s greatest strength, the document that makes us exceptional — has been under attack from sea to shining sea and beyond.

The right of the accused to confront his accuser; the right to a swift trial; protection from being incarcerated indefinitely without charges; the right to be free from surveillance and search unless there is probable cause and a warrant; the right to privacy; the right to assemble freely.

All these and more have been threatened, impinged upon, and, in some cases, ignored.

It is the terrorists’ greatest victory: creating such fear that we allow these insidious erosions to occur with barely a whimper.

You’ve all heard the argument from those who avert their eyes as our freedoms slip silently away.

Sure, the argument goes; it would be nice to hold on firmly to our liberties. But we are at war, and in wartime you have to sacrifice some of them. You can get back to normal after the war is over.

But the war on terror is a permanent war, fought against an ill-defined enemy and with no discernible end. There will be no Appomattox this time, no Potsdam, no Treaty of Versailles.

If you suspend your freedoms for the duration of a war that will never end, then those freedoms do not exist.

All this chipping away at what makes the U.S. unique has been going on for 10 years. But now, at long last, the populace seems to be taking notice.

Fred and Ginger

Two weeks ago, to cite a local example, the county Board of Supervisors discussed a truancy ordinance that would give school resource officers — campus cops, the kids call them — the right to accost youngsters who are not in school during school hours.

The professed purpose was noble enough — to cut down on truancy and help the truant youngsters get back in school where they can learn, and make something of their lives.

But, home-school and other parents asked, under what circumstances would officers stop their kids? The youngsters might be just going to the store or be out on the street for some other innocuous reason.

In other words, what would be the probable cause to query them? The question comes straight from the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits such a search unless there is a reason for it.

I wish I could tell you that the county had a good answer. But the sheriff, the chief probation officer, the county superintendent of schools and others in authority danced nimbly around the question with footwork so deft they made Fred and Ginger look clumsy in comparison.

Supervisors postponed a decision on the truancy ordinance while those who are pushing it go out to the public and explain it more fully. Here’s hoping they do a better job explaining the probable cause part than they have done so far.

Meanwhile, good for the parents and the youngsters who accompanied them to the hearing. I hope the children in particular keep fighting for rights as they grow older.

Ornery senator

They are not alone. Stories about the rights guaranteed to Americans and efforts to defend them are beginning to pop up all over. Here are some recent examples:

 Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky refused to allow himself to be searched before getting on an airplane. How many of the rest of us would like to do that? That a United States senator would make an issue of it gives it the visibility it deserves.

 The U.S. Supreme Court last week said police cannot track suspects with GPS devices unless a court first authorizes a warrant. The decision was unanimous, and it showed that the court is finally taking an interest in constitutional protections.

 Arroyo Grande police have installed surveillance cameras in public places, and Grover Beach police will be using modern technology to read license plates. Nobody has formally complained in either case — yet. But these are intrusions on privacy and someone is likely to. At a minimum, the local police departments have felt the need to justify the moves.

On the national scene, the greatest dismantling of rights has taken place with the captured “enemy combatants,” many of whom remain at Guantanamo Bay.

That all has been exhaustively documented, and I’m not going to rehash it other than to say that we have now incarcerated, for as long as 10 years, people who have been accused but not convicted of crimes.

A corollary constitutional crime has taken place with police infiltration of mosques, and the all-too-common belief that American Muslims are suspect because they are Muslim.

We’ve been down that decayed road before, with World War II and the incarceration of Japanese- Americans.

One good thing that has come out of this tumultuous decade with its attacks on the Constitution has been the evolution of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is keeping track of digital age crimes against citizens. It is a sort of ACLU for the online era.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is not alone. More and more people, from the nation’s top court to schoolchildren in Arroyo Grande, are paying attention now to violations of our collective constitutional rights.

We are about to find out how resilient we are in guarding our liberties.

It won’t be the first time in our history we’ve been through a constitutional struggle, but for this go-round it’s a decade late. Better late than never, though.