After they were stopped by authorities while traveling on Highway 75, police searched their cars for 17 hours with dogs and robots, detonated a bit of their personal property, and closed the main east-west artery in Florida's highway system, stopping commerce and blocking traffic for hours.
The police found nothing, and the three men were finally released to continue their trip to a Miami hospital, where they intended to go about the business of learning how to save lives. Days later it was reported that the hospital no longer wants them after receiving threatening e-mails. Yet there is a bright side, security officials say: The anti-terrorism apparatus is well-oiled and in perfect function.
There are a number of worrying details surrounding the fiasco, including a troubling dependence on racial profiling and unverifiable civilian reports. If swarthy young men are to be picked up by the cops for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, then I might just have to stay out of the sun next summer. This new anti-terror apparatus goes beyond America's Muslim community and has implications for all of us. If the authorities entrusted to protect our freedoms routinely curtail those same freedoms in the name of security, a vicious, repressive cycle is created, from which no American is safe.
Since September 11, 2001, there has been a deterioration of civil liberties, privacy, and constitutional rights on a scale that dwarfs the wildest pipe dreams of J. Edgar Hoover. And from what we now know of his history, it is safe to say he had plenty of them. In Hoover's era, a vocal public kept some check on the most extreme cloak-and-dagger ambitions, but the current Administration has enjoyed a degree of public acquiescence unequalled since World War II. This time the stakes are bigger and the intrusions more subtle and far-reaching. WWII, we knew, would be finite, and the objective clear: to undermine the imperial aspirations of a dangerous group of fascists. The moral high ground we held in that battle was unimpeachable in the face of Nazism. Yet 60 years later, the stain of civilian internment still sullies the American memory of all the good we accomplished in that war. Then, as now, we have allowed our methods to be corrupted by our mania to stamp out the enemy. We risk losing much of our moral capital in an epic war on terror, where the enemy is less tangible, and the goal indistinct. The Bush Administration has committed itself to no less than the complete annihilation of "evil," and in a war of opinions, there are no victors — and no end.
The plight of the three medical students in Florida is a dangerously potential road map of the future of our rights in America. The circumstances of their detention were clearly wrong. Yet the lack of public outrage is telling, and the generally unquestioned acceptance of a Big Brother network into our midst is disquieting, to say the least. The authorities have spun the event as a victory for our anti-terror network, a triumph in the struggle to remain free. Yet as Americans, we would be wise to denounce the event for what it was: the abhorrent forces of xenophobia and fear trampling freedom with the full complicity of the law.
Tucker Teutsch is a former staff writer for the San Antonio Current.