WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, as I stood at a rally in front of the Justice Department calling for civil rights protections in the war on terror, I had a sense of déjà vu. It was tied to a memory of an old Yemeni man asking me: "To whom can the eloquent scream?"
In 1998, I was in a mountaintop village in Yemen. Taken by the stunning view of lush green fields rolling away to a 3,000-foot-deep valley, I'd begun drifting away from the focus group on political participation that I was supposed to be monitoring.And then suddenly, a gravelly voice pulled me abruptly back to reality with that dramatic question.
I was in Yemen because I was promoting democracy for an American political development organization. I was trying to teach such American values as transparency and accountability democratic values often synonymous with the United States, but not with the Arab world.
As I became more versed in the culture, I realized the old man had spoken a Yemeni proverb rooted in these very concepts. It was meant to express the centuries-old frustration that all people have with governments that do not listen, a frustration that caused Thomas Jefferson to assert that we are all "endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights."
In the weeks that followed, I spoke to many more people like that noble man and to elected officials about two things.
First, I encouraged civic participation in spite of Yemen's lack of transparency and accountability, suggesting that, without it, leaders would have no incentive to change. Second, I tried to inspire the elected officials to become responsive because, without that, the public would only become more alienated.
To convince these people, I found myself citing example after example from our "American experience" to show how a democracy cannot endure without a committed citizenry and an open government that answers to the people. I talked about how Americans had learned this primarily by overcoming their mistakes, including the tragedy of slavery, denial of suffrage to women and minorities, internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, and Watergate, among others.
In some ways, I believe the work I was involved with was successful. Next year, Yemen is expected to hold its third round of parliamentary elections, and local Yemeni officials are now elected as well.
But Yemen still has a long way to go.
And, apparently, so do we Americans.
That sense of déjà vu I experienced at the Washington protest was prompted by the steps the Justice Department has taken during the year since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As I listened to speakers rail against recent attacks on civil liberties such as secret trials, the use of material witness statutes as a form of preventive detention, and the refusal to allow US citizens arrested as "enemy combatants" to see their lawyers or challenge their detention before a civilian judge, I was suddenly sad.
Our leaders are supposed to know that, in the long run, secret detentions and trials don't encourage confidence in government; they discourage it. And if prolonged, those policies brew mistrust. And leaders should know that profiling specific populations only makes those groups feel more threatened and pushes them further away from the rest of us.
You wouldn't know it, though, from John Ashcroft and the policies of his Justice Department.
Contrary to what the attorney general seems to believe, the solution to our problem today is in more democracy, not less.
We must engage the Arab- and Muslim-American communities to find the security we seek. Because as their liberty is threatened, all liberty is threatened. And, in turn, as they lose confidence in our government, so everyone will lose confidence in our government. If we assure them of their liberties and engage them as partners, then whatever help they can provide in the war will be guaranteed, and the likelihood that some may pose a threat which is at the root of government fears will be greatly diminished.
This is born out in the FBI's contrasting experiences in Michigan and Florida. In Michigan, the FBI has reached out to the leadership, organization, and houses of worship in the Arab- and Muslim-American communities. And the FBI has been rewarded with a high degree of participation from both communities.
However, in Florida, where the FBI used aggressive policies that frightened those populations, such as including the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the implicit threat of deportation in interrogations. Naturally, it has succeeded in alienating them.
One must ask if alienating the very people who might be able to help provide information is the best way to make us safer. Our democracy has survived because of the participation of its citizenry that participation depends on the government's transparency and accountability. If those values cease to have meaning for our leadership, we may soon find that not only Arab- and Muslim-Americans but all Americans will be wondering, "to whom can the eloquent scream?"
David Nassar, a Democratic political consultant, worked on Yemeni issues for five yearsat the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.