By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
In the past eight years, our nation has been greatly weakened. In particular, our freedoms, our values, and our international reputation have been significantly undermined by the policies of the Bush Administration. On Election Day, Americans indicated loud and clear that they want a change in direction.
But what, exactly, must Senator Obama do to restore our freedoms and values when he becomes president?
It is no simple task. In preparation for the transition to a new presidential administration, the ACLU earlier this year began looking at what a new president could do to reverse the damage that has been done over the past eight years.
Some of what must be done is self evident. As president, Mr. Obama must stop the torture of so-called enemy combatants. He must close the Guantanamo Bay facility and hold fair trials for the detainees held there. He must also end “extraordinary renditions” in which suspects are kidnapped by the CIA and sent to countries where physical abuse is legal. These are actions that the new president should take on his first day in office to begin the process of restoring our nation’s important principles of fundamental fairness and due process of law.
Other priorities are almost as obvious: ending warrantless spying on Americans, fixing the nation’s “watch list” system in which innocent people and organizations are designated as terrorist suspects, stopping the monitoring of peaceful political activists, and restoring the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division as a meaningful and effective organ of the government.
But if the full damage done by the Bush administration is to be reversed, perhaps the hardest work will take place deep inside government bureaucracy, where hundreds of rules and regulations have been amended, initiated, or ignored in ways that quietly but effectively diminish the lives of millions of Americans.
Until recently for example, residents of public housing were, without exception, to be evicted whenever criminal activity took place in their units. But one result of this “get tough” law was that women who were subjected to domestic violence were being evicted even though they were the victims of the crime!
Congress fixed this absurdity in the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). But today, more than two years after passage, the Bush Administration has still not acted on this policy. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has not issued regulations interpreting and explaining the law. As a result, many public housing authorities remain unaware of the new law and have not trained their staff on the new protections. Upon taking office, Mr. Obama needs to make sure VAWA is understood and enforced in public housing communities.
Issues like this do not get raised in presidential debates, are not mentioned on bumper stickers, and seldom make the newspapers. But there are hundreds of them, and they need to be addressed in the coming months. As president, Mr. Obama must push the Federal Communications Commission to curtail media consolidations that threaten viewpoint diversity in our newspapers and on radio and television. He will need to pass new regulations to prevent the Real ID Act from becoming a national ID law. He must reverse recently imposed government rules that inhibit free scientific inquiry. He must eliminate Medicaid rules that discriminate against gays and lesbians. And, he needs to stop promoting local enforcement of federal immigration laws, a policy that has introduced unprecedented fear and intimidation into our immigrant communities.
Restoring America’s legacy of freedom and our international reputation is not just a matter of fixing a few big items. The new president will have to dig deep into a broad array of ill-conceived government policies and regulations to undo the damage done to our civil liberties by the Bush Administration. We in the ACLU look forward to seeing him do just that.
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