Glenn Greenwald talks civil liberties By Cassandra Negley 
By Cassandra Negley


Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 08:03

At its core, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bayis supposed to induce some laughs as Harold and Kumar, and of course Neil Patrick Harris, engage in sex, drugs and unicorn hallucinations. But the entire premise of the movie is exactly what journalist and political blogger Glenn Greenwald spoke about with almost 300 Brockport students, faculty, staff and town residents last week: civil liberties.

If you missed the movie, Harold (of South Korean descent) and Kumar (Indian descent) set off to Amsterdam to chase after Harold’s girl for a fairy tale ending. In typical Kumar fashion, he sneaks a marijuana bong on the plane and attempts to use it. Passengers see him, scream “terrorist,” “bomb” and “poison gas” allegations and eventually the two friends are tackled by U.S. Marshalls, sent back to the U.S. and promptly tossed into Guantanamo Bay, the detainment and interrogation facility the U.S runs in Cuba. 

Obviously Kumar had done wrong, but the reason they’re immediately thrown to the Bay is because they’re believed to be terrorists with a bomb on a plane, a huge scare to the U.S. after Sept. 11. They aren’t given due process or a trial, they’re simply thrown in jail. 

It’s not a common thread of conversation, the issue of civil liberties. These civil liberties, as defined by Greenwald Thursday, March 7 during his lecture, “On Liberty and Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” are “absolute in their nature.” He describes them as a list of limitations imposed on the government by the people. These limitations are neither ambiguous nor circumstantial: They are certain rights every person is entitled to. 

“Collectively, we’re willing to let government assert power over us as long as it doesn’t cross certain lines,” Greenwald said to the crowd. 

Civil liberties is a topic that commonly fuels his columns for The Guardian, a U.K. newspaper, and speaking engagements, which he schedules around TV appearances and time at home in Brazil. 

“I actually have fantasies my tombstone says ‘Glenn Greenwald: civil liberties extremist,’” Greenwald told the crowd. 

His Brockport lecture, brought together by Nicholas Lind and the history forum, focused on how citizens are stripped of these civil liberties and why it happens. One guiding factor was the difference between wartime and peace. He mentioned multiple times how the current generation, the college students sitting in front of him, have only ever known war. These students have only had a political consciousness shaped by a post-9/11 world. 

Greenwald wasn’t always a columnist, but he was always working for personal rights. He worked as a constitutional and civil rights litigator in New York City, his hometown (he’s originally from Queens), before starting his own award-winning political blog and eventually transitioning to his current job atThe Guardian. He said he made the move to increase his reach and that he also has full editorial control. 

He has certainly increased his reach through the column, but also through his various TV appearances. Before the lecture, while granting an interview to The Stylus outside the New York room, Greenwald was like a celebrity. One group of town residents came through, enthused to see Greenwald up close, and exclaimed how they loved watching him on TV. 

He’s been on The Colbert Report (a college favorite) Fox News, C-SPAN, NPR and MSNBC. His calm in the face of heated debates is something he attributes partially to his time as a trial lawyer

“There’s always horrible surprises that threaten to sink everything you do [as a lawyer], and if you show the jury that you are shocked or surprised or bothered, even if inside you’re dying emotionally, they’re going to pick up on the fact that something awful just happened,” Greenwald said in an interview before the lecture. “But if you’re able to project a sense of calm and even confidence, it’s contagious and infectious. So if [there is] some horrible piece of evidence or someone says something devastating to your case, if you don’t show it a lot of times people won’t realize it and if you treat it as though you have everything under control, people will assume that you do.”

He said his passion about what he writes and observes is what keeps him writing. Compared to other political journalists, he said he got into writing about politics because of his passion behind the issues. He’s talked with Muslim communities about persecution and with families of 5-year-olds who’ve been killed by drones, both of which are issues he has very strong feelings about. 

“I think the minute you start to lose control of your emotions, you’ve basically lost the argument becuase you lose the abillity to stay focused on what ultimately will persuade people,” he said. “It’s hard because inside you want to strangle people, often, or yell and scream in express of your emotions.” 

Greenwald’s lecture showed this passion for civil liberties and background as a lawyer. It was a well put-together speech about how our civil liberties are being taken, war tactics are being used at home on Americans and it’s all happening with citizens’ sometimes unknowing consent. 

Even when citizens realize there’s a fear in the general population, they can’t do anything about it. 

Greenwald spoke of WikiLeaks, an online organization that publishes secret information and leaks. He wrote a column about it and urged people to donate money to the organization so these leaks could keep happening. The response he said he got was hundreds of people who wanted to donate, but were afraid that if they did, they would “end up on some government list somewhere or even be subjected to criminal liabililty if they’re retroactively declared a terrorist group.”

Greenwald said these people weren’t paranoid, but instead very rational people who were very thoughtful and well- rounded. 

“These people had given up their own rights because they’re afraid government would punish them even though this document says that they can engage in exactly that activity without fear of recrimination,” Greenwald said. 

Yet, he closed his lecture with ways we people can do something about everything they had just heard, because not many can escape things such as Guantanamo Bay as easily as Harold and Kumar. 

He said the one clear lesson of all history is that any structure built by human beings can be altered or torn down if there are humans with the right passion and strategy. 

“If success isn’t being made in whatever cause you believe in, it isn’t because it’s impossible or because defeatism is the only rational reaction,” he said. “It’s because you just haven’t found the right means and the right mechanism and the right strategy to go about to achieve positive change. Once you realize that, the questions no longer becomes, ‘Is there anything that can be done about it?’ The question you wake up everyday focusing on is ‘What is it that I can do with  my talents and my abilities in order to make this happen?’”

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