Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Should Obama's First Priorities Be?

Obama has opportunities to make progress in many, many arenas. Healthcare, jobs, the environment, just to name a few. However, for me, as a Jew, there is one issue that stands out above all others, that I really hope will be his top priority when he takes office. That issue is civil liberties. For 8 years, the Bush administration has been putting the US Constitution through a shredder in the name of maintaining security. Suspending habeas corpus, illegal warrantless wiretaps, torture, a general attitude that the president is above the law, and can ignore congress as he sees fit. And those are just the things we know about. Many of these things remind me of Germany in the 1930s before World War II, as they started to take similar rights away from the Jews, and consolidate the power in the hands of the executive. Now, I am not trying to suggest that George Bush is anywhere near as bad as Adolf Hitler. I know some of my friends have chided me that Bush is just using these tools to fight terror, and as long as I'm not a terrorist, or associated with terrorists, I have nothing to worry about. However, once the precedent is set that the government need not respect these kinds of rights for its citizens, there is no way to predict who they will use it against in 20 or 50 years. As a student of Jewish history, I feel I have good reason to believe they will ultimately turn against the Jews. Every society has, especially those where Jews once felt most welcomed.

Even though Obama spoke of restoring civil liberties during the campaign, once in office he will be under tremendous pressure not to. Once a person or institution has a certain power, they do not give it up easily. The intelligence community has grown accustomed to a certain modus operandi during the Bush administration, and will not look kindly upon having their hands tied by the Obama administration. I have no doubt they will do everything they can to convince president Obama that there is no way to effectively fight terror without retaining these tools. Of course, we can fight terror in a way that is smart and effective, and also legal. But that would require new thinking on the part of our intelligence. The easy choice is to keep doing things they way they are now. Were Obama to give in, he would likely get away with it. The conservatives never believed in civil liberties anyway, and if he placates the liberals with an ambitious healthcare plan and strong new environmental regulations, they'll ignore this one misstep.

We really are at a precipice of history on this issue. If Obama restores constitutional rights, then the Bush years will be an aberration, and we have no immediate cause for concern. If he doesn't, then the changes will become precedent, more or less set in stone, and it is extremely unlikely that any future leader would change them back. If this happens, I fear for my people.

I joined the ACLU because of George Bush, but lest we become complacent now that he is leaving office, it is doubly important we continue to support the ACLU now that Obama is becoming president. If he does not act to restore civil liberties, the opportunity is probably gone forever. If he really wants to show he is taking a different direction from Bush, this ought to be his top priority. He promised it during the campaign, and more than anything else he promised, this is the one we need to hold his feet to the fire to get him to keep. I don't normally make appeals on this page, but please, now more than ever, support the ACLU. They really are the last, best, hope for America.

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