The Biggest Threat to American Freedom

A new reports says it's racial disparities, not counterterrorism.

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The United States's counterterrorism policies are hardly without problems, but they are not the most significant threat to American freedom. That is the essential critique of a report released today by Freedom House, a nonprofit research organization.

Though the report concludes that the United States remains largely free, it highlights how long-standing racial inequalities and the flaws of the criminal justice system take away more freedom for more people than anything else.

"The dynamic, self-correcting nature of American democracy—the resilience of its core institutions and habits even in a time of military conflict—is the most significant finding," the report concludes. But "Americans' comparative success in creating a multiracial, and, in a sense, multinational society should not obscure the very real problems associated with such diversity."

The report is the organization's first directed solely at the United States and was motivated by the broader international discontent with American foreign policy since Sept. 11, 2001.

While the study is critical of many of the Bush administration's policies in the war on terror—from indefinite detentions at Guantánamo Bay to domestic warrantless wiretapping—the authors argue that many of the problems are now being challenged in the courts and Congress. And, they say, these transgressions are far less severe than those in previous crises in American history when, for instance, habeas corpus was suspended during the Civil War or when the country interned Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Instead, they point to developments in American society that came long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—and ones that will likely remain generations into the future.

In particular, the report highlights the strong evidence of unequal treatment of black and Hispanics. Coupled with prison overcrowding and long sentencing, these policies were particularly "jarring," the report says. Indeed, a black man has a 1 in 3 chance of being in prison in his lifetime compared with a 1 in 17 chance for a white man.

"The justified celebration of pluralism, however, can obscure the substantial and enduring gap between whites and blacks in the United States," the report concludes.

Yet some were critical of the report's method of judging current freedom by historical standards. "It's like saying African-Americans should be so happy with their freedom because we're not lynching them," Bob Edwards, XM Satellite Radio host, said at a forum announcing the report. "That's preposterous."