The War on Civil Liberties Hits Home

by SHRIREEN PARSONS

"The story of what we’ve done in the postwar period is remarkable. It is a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day."

Rep. George Nethercutt (R-WA), on his return from touring Baghdad with other Republican congressmen to see "what’s going right in Iraq."

October 2003

On October 26, the current erosion of civil liberties in the United States affected me most personally.

On that sunny Saturday, in Washington, DC, my daughter, 2-year-old granddaughter and I joined 50,000 Americans opposed to the Iraq War in the protest organized by International ANSWER and VoteNoWar.

Participants included thousands of veterans and soldiers’ families, as well as members of 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of family members who lost loved ones during the September 11 attacks and who are actively speaking out against the Bush administration’s campaign of "endless war." It was a wonderful experience, shared in solidarity by simultaneous demonstrators in San Francisco and other US cities, as well as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in other countries around the world.

In the late afternoon, filled with the exhilaration of the protest, my daughter, granddaughter and I decided to go to the food court at the Ronald Reagan Building for some refreshment before taking the Metro back to my daughter’s home in suburban Virginia.

As we passed through the security checkpoint at the entrance to the building, one of the guards politely informed me that I’d have to put away my poster, which reads, "End the Occupation of Iraq." I had no problem with that, so I rolled up the poster and stashed it in my tote bag.

I also happened to be wearing a t-shirt, purchased at the protest, over a black turtleneck. The shirt is red, with "Unite to Fight Imperialist War" printed in black letters, arranged in a 7-inch circle around an image of two clasped hands — one white, and one black. On the back, it says "No Imperialist War," repeated in 19 languages. It’s a beautiful shirt.

It was when the guard politely informed me that I’d have to remove my t-shirt that the exhilaration of the day faded. As the guard was obviously from the Middle East, I explained that, in wearing the shirt, I was exercising my right to freedom of speech as guaranteed to American citizens under our Constitution. He politely said he understood that, but that I had to remove the shirt before he could allow me to enter the building. Not wanting to involve my daughter and granddaughter in a scene, feeling sickened, I removed the shirt. I believe the guard was as mortified as I was.

I instantly regretted my decision to comply with this violation of my civil rights, and I regret it still. The fact that I went to the nearest restroom and put the shirt on again didn’t make me feel any better.

The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center is a federal property — it is owned by me and every other American citizen. That I acquiesced to a requirement to doff one of our most treasured constitutional rights along with my shirt in order to enter a federal building in the nation’s capitol has left me with feelings of outrage and shame. Outrage that The Land of the Free is no such thing, and shame that I didn’t have the presence of mind to protest this injustice loudly enough to get hauled off to jail.

Americans must not be required to shed our constitutional rights in order to enter federal property — OUR property.

Shireen Parsons lives in Virginia. She can be reached at: parsons@counterpunch.org.

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