At a Crossroads

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(Host) A national conference has led commentator Allen Gilbert to look for the “tipping point” that may lead to big changes in our country.

(Gilbert) I had the chance recently to hear an amazing line-up of speakers: Former National Security advisor Richard Clarke, journalist Seymour Hersh, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Howard Dean’s campaign advisor, Joe Trippi; and even Howard Dean himself.

The occasion was the national conference of the American Civil Liberties Union. I went in my role as executive director of Vermont’s ACLU affiliate. While civil liberties were front and center at the conference, there was an air about the gathering that suggested something is afoot that’s bigger than specific issues such as the Patriot Act or the Hamedi and Padilla court decisions.

One speaker after another suggested that our nation is approaching a crossroads. So many significant events have occurred in such quick succession that it’s hard to think that our country will remain the same. No one predicted when we might get to the crossroads, or where the various roads might lead.

Listening to the various speakers, I felt transported back to 1972 or 1973. Those were the years that the Watergate break-in spun out of control, and the scope of the Nixon administration’s misdeeds were revealed.

Now, in 2004, I feel as though we may be at a similar point – witnessing watershed events.

Seymour Hersh said that there are even more atrocities to be reported from Iraqi jails. He said that activities there constitute war crimes. Daniel Ellsberg called for “civic courage.” He worried that a new terrorist attack could force even greater restrictions on civil liberties.

I’m reminded of the theory of “tipping points” – specific, even seemingly insignificant events that cause history to take new turns. Where might the tipping point come that causes a new turn of events in 2004 or 2005?

It could come from the Supreme Court. An attorney analyzing recent decisions noted the court’s affirmation of a 1789 law on torture. The law says torture victims can sue in U.S. courts, no matter where the torture took place. Given the occurrences at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, it’s easy to see how this law could prove explosive.

Daniel Ellsberg suggested that the tipping point might come through investigation of who revealed Valerie Plame’s status as a secret CIA agent. Revealing the identity of a government agent is a felony, he pointed out. The investigation could, potentially, finger high-ranking officials.

Others spoke of the vast changes that are sweeping the nation. The Internet has changed the very nature of participatory democracy, according to Joe Trippi. Wayne LaPierre feels that the news media are hindered – by corporate interests or government actions – from accurate reporting. Gavin Newsom wonders how same-sex couples can be denied marriage rights.

It’s a difficult, and challenging, time to be an American. In many respects, we’re in uncharted waters. There is no safe harbor on the horizon. The message that I took home with me from the conference is that we need to prepare ourselves for uncertain, and perhaps dramatic, times.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist and teacher who writes about public policy issues. He is currently serving as Executive Director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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