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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the December 22, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On the PATRIOT ACT

On September 11, 2001, shortly before 9 a.m. we at U.S. 1 received a call in our office from the husband of one of our workers. He was in the World Trade Center and wanted to let his wife know what was unfolding in the building around him.

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday morning our staff person still didn’t know when or if her husband would ever come home. Several others on our staff stayed with our colleague. At work we were short-handed and had 19,000 copies of that week’s issue sitting in the parking lot, waiting to be delivered. I called one of deliverers who hadn’t planned to work that day but said he would if we needed him. His named was Hamid, “as in Mohammad,” he used to say, to help us with the pronunciation.

When I reached his house by phone early Wednesday morning, I heard voices in a foreign language announce my call. After some hurried discussion, Hamid finally came to the phone. “Are you sure you want me to come to work today?” he asked. I had worked beside Hamid on many an occasion, and I didn’t hesitate: “Yes, I’m sure.”

Several long hard weeks later our colleague, Brenda Fallon, now a widow, returned to work. She was greeted by the deliverers in the parking lot. From a distance I saw Hamid approach her and embrace her with a hug. It was a gesture that brought a tear of hope to my eye: American, Middle Eastern, Judeo-Christian, Muslim, you name it — there was still decency in the world.

I got thinking about that gesture the other day, when I read the news reports and accompanying letters to the editor in the West Windsor-Plainsboro News about West Windsor’s adoption of a resolution critical of the cleverly named USA PATRIOT act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). The West Windsor resolution, similar to others passed in Princeton, Lawrence, and other municipalities, urged “full and fair” hearings on the act and the passage of amendments “to eliminate any chilling effect on constitutional liberties and implement effective programs targeted at actual threats without compromising the values that are fundamental to America.”

Normally I would question such an ordinance, as West Windsor Council person (and executive director of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce) Kristin Appelget did when she abstained from the vote: “I don’t think I was elected because of my opinions on civil liberties, abortion, or other larger issues,” she was quoted as saying. And you could push that argument even further: If a town like West Windsor wants to legislate matters of homeland security, does that mean that it’s okay for the federal government to get involved in zoning or planning school bus routes?

But in the case of towns like West Windsor, it’s not that simple. Here a substantial portion of the population is made up of recent immigrants and first generation Americans. Their positive contributions have already been felt. Thanks in part to the achievements of their children, the two high schools in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District came in first and second in the 2004 rankings by New Jersey Monthly magazine (Princeton High was back around 10th, in case you are curious). In West Windsor the majority of citizens (new and old) consistently vote for both lavish school budgets and expenditures for open space acquisition.

Passing an act that lets the newest citizens know that their rights are a matter of community concern is a reassuring gesture at a time when some of those newest citizens have reason to be concerned. One of the supporters of the West Windsor resolution cited instances of Muslim American residents there being visited at their homes by the FBI. And a national poll conducted by Cornell University estimated that 44 percent of Americans favored restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans in the interest of combatting terrorism.

But as Charles Morgan, another West Windsor Council person, noted in a letter to the editor, combatting terrorism and protecting civil liberties do not have to come at the expense of each other. Referring to the critics of the resolution, Morgan wrote: “I am astounded at any suggestion that West Windsor residents would welcome erosion of our Constitutional rights. I am also astounded by any suggestion that West Windsor residents would oppose our taking every step necessary to protect us from terrorist evil.

“This has nothing to do with partisan politics. It has to do with fundamental American values, regardless of political stripe.”

More than anything else, the West Windsor resolution is a gesture of good will and, yes, it comes at a time when such gestures are flowing freely through the air — happy holidays, everyone. But even gestures can be important, as I realized back in the U.S. 1 parking lot a few long hard weeks after September 11.

Happy holidays, everyone.


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