A Taiwanese attorney, who like myself is a human right advocate sent me a copy of the new British Anti-Terrorism Act, and asked me what I thought. This is my reply to him, which might be of some interest to others. (I have dropped his name out of the letter).
Good Morning Attorney X,
Thanks much for sending along the new British Anti-Terrorism Act, it made interesting and disturbing reading. By coincidence I was thinking over the weekend about the incredible decline and fall of civil liberties that has occurred in the Anglo-American law in my lifetime. When I was a kid, in the 1960s, the Warren Court was in control and civil liberties were at their high point.
Then starting in the late 1970s and into the mid 1980s on the British side there were all the civil rights/human rights issues raised by the problems (troubles as they referred to them) in Northern Ireland with the Irish Republican Army (the IRA). Coming from Irish stock and because of my work with Amnesty International I followed developments in British law fairly closely. As one would expect the war against the IRA was used to curtail civil rights, not just in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom.
On the American side the 1980s saw the big Ronald Regan War on Drugs. And in California there were all kinds of legal changes that really limited civil liberties. (for example the change that got rid of independent state grounds for challenging searches, or another example being the good faith exception for search warrants). And in California you had all the late 1980s and early 1990s hype about black and Mexican street gangs and how they were going to destroy California yack, yack, yack. But the general public bought it and traded civil rights for (supposed) safe streets.
Then 9-11. And all that followed from that; the Patriot Act, the new Military Commissions Law, the Bush Administrations position that the USA does not even have to pretend to follow the long established international laws of war and all the rest.
I was thinking to myself, my dad died in 1970, and his dad (my grandfather) died in 1965; if they came back from the dead and saw America; I am sure they would be shocked beyond belief about the state of civil liberties. Truth be told, what I have started teaching in my classes is that for all intents and purposes such things as right to privacy are meaningless in fact and in the law in 21st century America.
It is a sad and weird situation. But if you step back and look at it from a historian or political scientist standpoint there maybe a certain inevitability about it. What I think the historian or political scientist would tell you is that nations, like individuals, have a life cycle and as nations get older, they get more rigid in many ways and that rigidity partially leads to their decline.
One thing I am 100% sure of is that I lived to see the high point of America (which I personally place as being the day the Berlin Wall fell, I view that as being the symbol of Americas victory in the Cold War and the high point of its life. ). And now I see the start of the decline. Well, having said that, I predict the next 100-200 years will still be Americas Reign, which may or may not be such a good thing.