The evening began with accusations raised against two men for manipulating and pressuring the American public into a state of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. These two men are better known as President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, according to Ahmad Bedier of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
On Wednesday these accusations, based on the Patriot Act, were discussed during a lecture held in the Phyllis P. Marshall Center Ballroom that covered issues of freedom in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
“The current situation, the current psyche of the U.S. (is) in order to be patriotic, or in order to have love for the United States … you have to hate, or have bias toward the enemy, which are the Arabs and the Muslims of the world,” Bedier said. “We have to educate ourselves. Real patriotism means that you uphold the Constitution. It doesn’t mean you just wave the flag, being shallow … when you don’t know anything about the flag, or the Constitution, or even how the flag got there or even who the current president is. Again, we have to do our part before it’s too late. Just because it is not affecting us today does not mean it will not be affecting us tomorrow.”
Barbara Petersen, a USF professor of mass communications law and society, used a series of political cartoons to illustrate her views of the Bush administration and, more specifically, Ashcroft.
Petersen’s speech attacked what she called misconceptions in Americans’ minds. Petersen said the USA Patriot Act displays Ashcroft’s disregard for the Constitution and those it governs, as well as the manipulation and lies from the administration.
The USA Patriot Act, passed in October 2001, allows the government to share information between U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies with intent to track and detain suspected terrorists, but, as of late, has been used to track other types of criminals.
The act’s name is an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”
Petersen accused Ashcroft of using the word “patriot” to intimidate citizens who may oppose it, and said the bill was an attempt to limit civil rights in the United States.
“People should not have to fear persecution from expressing their opinions, even if those opinions go against their government,” Petersen said. “Real patriots question authority, but right now the public perception seems to be ‘free speech is dangerous’ … but to protect opinions, to allow we the people, the owners of this democracy, to live without fear, we need to speak out against things like the Patriot Act.”
One of the cartoons Petersen displayed included Bush being held captive at gunpoint by a villain labeled “Politics.” Despite the strip’s defense of Bush, she said, the artist was still questioned by the FBI as a potential threat to the president. Petersen said such acts hampered the media’s ability to oversee and check the government, putting the public in danger.
Following Petersen’s presentation, Sandra Chance, a journalism professor at the University of Florida, said much of the legislation passed since the attacks target the Freedom of Information Act, a piece of legislation passed in 1967 that made most government documents and actions public record.
The great debate, Chance said, was that of security versus secrecy. The government, she said, seems to think secrecy, both domestically and internationally, is necessary to maintain security for the American people. She cited several acts of legislation that she said, displayed the federal government’s attempts to hide its actions from its citizens, with Ashcroft often being accused of disregarding and even detesting the Constitution.
She also compared the Patriot Act to McCarthyism, a 1950s campaign against Communist subversion in the United States, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Tampa-based immigration attorney Mayra Calo’s experience with the American Civil Liberties Union had led to her direct involvement in some Patriot Act cases discussed. Calo described visiting her clients in prison and the conditions in which they were held. She compared the situation to the Holocaust, with the detainees being held against their will in crowded living conditions.
Bedier finished his speech by saying hundreds were being held without being named and without explanation, and that America would have to overcome the issue like it had in past civil rights issues.
“Women could not vote 80 years ago, and 60 years ago black men were lynched from trees by mobs,” he said. “But eventually the country came to their senses, and what was right came to be. America needs to understand what is going on, and realize it is wrong.”