Defining Freedom in a Post 9/11 World

It is ten years since the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  While America’s major focus continues on the immediate issues of the economy, there is perhaps no discussion more important than resolution between national security priorities and the human rights of free speech, privacy and religion. How our society reconciles this conflict between freedom from terror and the personal freedoms of expression, conscience, and association will define the world in which we and all future generations shall live.

To explore and raise awareness on this critical human rights issue, Youth for Human Rights International (YHRI) sponsored a forum on “Terrorism and Civil Liberties, Defining Freedom in a Post 9-11 World” Saturday, December 10 at the Church of Scientology Chapel in Old Pasadena.  The event commemorated Human Rights Day, 2011, the 63rd anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The program presented different perspectives on the security vs. privacy, religion, and free speech debate, but with appreciation of – and respect for – potentially conflicting realities.  Among the speakers were Joe Grieboski, founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Washington-based Institute for Religion and Public Policy; Pasadena Chief of Police Phillip Sanchez; Ms. Ameena Mirza Qazi, Esq., Deputy Executive Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR);  Officer Omar Ricci of the LAPD’s Anti-Terror Unit; Preston Mills, President, Marshall Fundamental High School Empowered Leaders Club; and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

A wide range of community leaders, local educators, student leaders, and civil servants were among those attending, including Isaac Asberry, President, Teen Intervention Program, Compton; Pastor Nicholas Benson, President, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Greater Pasadena; Megmuna and Shukry Cattan, The Tiyya Foundation; Karen Dale, Head of School, Delphi Academy of Los Angeles; Ron Dowell, Chief Operating Officer, Compton4COPS; Dr. Mohammed Khalid Ejaz, Consul for Pakistan, Los Angeles Office;  Cecila Jackson, United Nations Association, Pasadena Chapter;  Anthony Massengale, LA County Human Relations Commission; Yvette McDowell, Ambassadors for Peace; Gary Moody, NAACP Pasadena; Nat Nehdar, Chair, Pasadena Human Relations Commission; Mallory Ochart, Cornerstone Academy; Aida and Bety Ogba, Marshall Fundamental High School Empowered Leaders Club; Yuny Parada and Isabel Ramirez, Pasadena Latino Foundation; Anthony Portantino, California Assembly; Lt. Phlunté Riddle, Pasadena Police; Deborah Sanchez, spouse of Pasadena Police Chief Sanchez; Irving Sarnoff, Friends of the United Nations; Marianna Smirnova, HT Resource Project; and  Era Thompson, Womens’ Federation for World Peace.

Moderator Tim Bowles, YHRI’s Director for International Development, opened the event. “In 1949, George Orwell foretold a future society marked by perpetual war, where eyes in the sky and mass logic dictated from a central source were the norm and where individuality and reason were decried as ‘thoughtcrimes’,” he said.  “We all trust and hope that we do not live in an Orwellian 1984 world, at least not yet.  Yet, how would we know unless we were really able to look, really able to know?  That is our aim this morning.”

The audience then viewed The Story of Human Rights, YHRI’s documentary on the origin and meaning of the UN’s Universal Declaration, including the ultimate responsibility of individuals to ensure the achievement of such rights.

Pasadena Chief of Police Phillip Sanchez included the current Occupy movements in his remarks.  He pointed to three segments of the current Occupy movements, including those with a real message on resolution of the inequities that thwart improved social and human rights conditions; those that have no idea why they are there; and a third portion of persons seemingly intent to push chaos for turmoil’s sake.

“Youth currently between 16 and 20 will soon be the largest voter bloc in the nation,” Chief Sanchez observed.  “These are people who will determine the future of medical care, social security, and host of other vital issues.” Addressing the youth in the audience, he said they should not take this responsibility lightly. Addressing the whole audience, he called for constructive, inspirational advocacy for needed changes, not action that creates more harm than good.

Referring again to the diversity of the Occupy movements, Chief Sanchez said those dedicated to social progress “must be the example of change that they want to see and implement it.”  “Otherwise,” he said, “we will be here 100 years from now talking about the same things.”

Ameena Mirza Qazi serves as Deputy Executive Director and Staff Attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations—Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter (CAIR-LA), the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in the United States.   Observing the human rights challenges to the American Muslim community, Ms. Qazi pointed out that “when a group or an individual is dehumanized, anything can happen.”  She reminded the audience of one of the more marked examples of mass dehumanization, the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese American citizens after Pearl Harbor. “At its root, that gross injustice rose from failure in leadership, racism and war hysteria,” Ms. Qazi said.  “The unwarranted recrimination and suspicion too often leveled at Islamic Americans at present also arises from these three factors.”

Ms. Qazi declared that the core of freedoms found in the Bill of Rights is in “crisis mode.” “The constitutional rights of religious free exercise, free speech, assembly, due process and cruel and unusual punishment are all currently on life support,” she said.  “True respect and protection of our civil rights ensures even, appropriate exercise of law enforcement, where law enforcement is truly needed and appropriate.” Ms. Qazi thus called for education on the issues, on cultural understanding, and on effective action toward the greater good.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Baca focused on the Universal Declaration’s Article 29, “Responsibility.”  He emphasized that leaders, including elected officials, must use their abilities to speak and act constructively in spite of the inevitable invitations by some to descend to a lower level. “The more responsible one is for himself, the more he can be responsible for others,” Sheriff Baca posed.  “If you value yourself, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to commit crimes. Those who oppress and seek to get in the way of others’ growth are doing so out of their own fear and insecurity.”

Sheriff Baca said that perhaps more than most, he deals with the “darkness” daily, the tragic neglect, abuses, drug addictions, and deaths in our communities. He observed that such a position creates the urgency and necessity of creating positive things in life. “These tragedies must be confronted and dealt with effectively as indifference to those suffering only makes them worse.”

The Sheriff drew an analogy to a cactus, difficult to help when armed with so many thorns, but capable of blooming if treated with respect. “And so it is with the human spirit,” Mr. Baca said.  “Responsibility involves patience and caring for the mind.”

Reserve Officer Omar Ricci serves with LAPD’s Counter-terrorism/Special Operations Bureau. Officer Ricci also served as National Chair for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in 2003. “Law enforcement is intended to deal with actual criminality,” he observed.  Officer Ricci stated that the authority of the police should never be abused to dramatize the prejudices and fixed ideas of any officer.  As a member of the anti-terror unit, he also emphasized that law enforcement plays a vital role in protecting the public and that we must intelligently balance of security with the protection of civil rights. “One vital means is to enable and encourage various cultural communities to work together on issues of common interest,” he emphasized.  He cited the forum as an obvious example.

Joe Grieboski is founder of The Institute on Religion and Public Policy, headquarters in Washington, DC Pointing to the climate of suspicion and fear that can adversely affect many in the population, Mr. Grieboski surveyed the audience on any apprehension over their coming to a forum exploring the state of our civil liberties now ten years after 9/11.  Mr. Grieboski asserted that there had actually been more attention placed on the importance of inter-religious understanding immediately after 9/11 than there is today. “We have stopped asking how the advance of national security measures can adversely affect our personal freedoms,” he said.  “Law enforcement’s ability to pry into the private lives of Americans without any criminal probable cause is now an accepted reality.”

“The worst of this is that it has encouraged other countries to follow suit,” Mr. Grieboski said.  “Why should it be improper for the Chinese, Russians, etc. to suppress their populations when the US has its Patriot Act? “

“Liberty is essential to happiness,” he observed.  “Only a system that protects human dignity is worthwhile. What a shame that we have to be reminded of who we are. Let us not forget our liberties and our responsibility.”

Mr. Grieboski concluded by suggesting three actions to help combat the continued erosion of liberties: 1) be vigilant; 2) educate oneself on the issues; and 3) be active and vocal on actual or developing abuses.  “Congress members consider one email to actually constitute six persons who hold those views.  Thus, an organized campaign with, say 500 people decrying a particular condition would be perceived as a 3,500 person movement at minimum.  If those 500 originated from a Congress members particular district, it could have a significant impact on that member’s actions,” Mr. Grieboski stated.

Marshall Fundamental High School senior Preston Mills described his working with fellow students to create a human rights leadership campaign in the United States. He said that experience has taught him never to judge a person by common assumptions.  “Dehumanization by those around us can be disappointing,” Mr. Mills stated. “However, there is hope if we can take the time to just communicate and understand rather than be ‘satisfied’ stereotyping our people around us. Oppressing others becomes a disease, because those who are disrespected tend to pass it on.”  Mr. Mills pushed his fellow youth to take the needed responsibility that will ensure human rights are secured not just for themselves but for the many around them clearly in need.

Closing the program, Mr. Bowles said that the presentations clearly demonstrated there is much to be done to stop the slide away from the rights and freedoms that should and must define us as a community. “National security is a priority, but its protective actions require criminal predicates, else such rights be sacrificed,” he observed. “Let’s come away not as passive  witnesses to the fear, caution, and human suffering around us but as true citizens better able to serve our fellows and our communities, to aid those in need and to wake those who would ignore the dangers to join us in effective action.”

Youth for Human Rights International (YHRI) is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to worldwide human rights education using the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It inspires and equips young people as advocates for tolerance and peace. YHRI works with educators, civil servants, religious leaders, youth, and any person or organization of good will. The organization distributes audiovisual and printed human rights educational materials that may be ordered from its website.



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.