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Heroes for our time



There is a lot wrong with this city and this world, and more scoundrels, preening frauds and no-goodniks infesting high places than even a city councilman can imagine.

But there are some things pretty right too, and even a few damned fine people whose horns don’t get blown enough. Possibly the most important institution in the nation now is the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been fighting a hard and most often unpopular fight in the greatest cause of all since Sept. 11.

The ACLU has been fighting to save America. No, not by blowing terrorists or suspected terrorists or Afghan children away, but by doing something much harder. They have been waging a battle to see that we continue to be the nation we are supposed to be.

That means a nation with freedom, fairness and justice for all. Plenty of your elected representatives and other demagogues forgot about that when the World Trade Center towers came down. So have some folks who were just plain scared.

Robert Sedler is anything but one of those. Actually, he had a particularly bad day on Sept. 11. For one thing, how would you like to have the nation’s single worst day in decades fall on your 66th birthday? But he also knew, pretty instantly, it was going to provoke a hellstorm of the kind he’d been fighting all his life. Sedler is a lawyer, and a nationally recognized constitutional scholar, a distinguished professor of law at Wayne State University. He’s fought for decades for civil rights of all kinds, usually pro bono — which, if you don’t happen to be up on the legal jargon, means working for free.

Sedler’s argued for the rights of blacks in the South as well as in Dearborn; for those of lesbians and gay people before being that was cool, and against racial discrimination in adoption and foster-care cases.

When Geoffrey Fieger and Jack Kevorkian were making all the noise over assisted suicide, Sedler was quietly and gallantly (if vainly, for now) arguing in appellate courts that a person had a constitutional right to end their own life.

But mainly, since Terrible Tuesday, Bob Sedler, who happens, incidentally, to be Jewish, has been fighting for the rights of Middle Easterners in America. No; that’s not really right. Actually, he’s battling just as much for the rest for us. For the good professor, unlike our hack politician of an attorney general, knows what’s really at stake. Sedler knows if this nation becomes a place where people can be thrown in jail and tried in secret without a public hearing … well, then the Osamas really have won.

Last Sunday, Oakland County’s ACLU set aside a day — long overdue — to honor both Bob Sedler and his wife Rozanne, a wonderful geriatric social worker (no, she doesn’t handle my case) who is the chapter president.

Normally, I hate covering speeches. But he gave a talk of such sheer power and beauty that it made the gibbering of our alleged leaders sound like open-mic night at Monkey Island. Asked what was the most pressing challenge to freedom in America today, Sedler told it like it is. “Protecting civil liberties in what the government and media call ‘the war on terrorism,’” he said.

We don’t need any ridiculous new anti-terrorism laws. “Within our constitutional structure, the government has all the tools it needs to prevent terrorist attacks. We cannot sacrifice our civil liberties in the name of combating terrorism,” he noted.

Now there are plenty of people who once believed that in theory, but who since have stared at the ugly, hate-filled face of Mohammed Atta and thought “Well ... this is different.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson would have seen it differently if he were still alive, as Sedler reminded us. Jackson, in an angry response to our policy of interning Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, said: “If any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable.” He felt it was totally un-American to “make an otherwise innocent act a crime, merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign.”

That’s not what John Ashcroft, who intellectually isn’t fit to dust Jackson’s books, thinks, which is why hundreds of Arabs and Middle Easterners have been rounded up, arrested, and are being held virtually incommunicado.

Overcoming the current hysteria will be hard, but will happen. Who now remembers the names of the jailers who locked Martin Luther King Jr. in the Birmingham jail, or those who sought to defend those actions? Doing what’s right is often hard. It means, Selder said, that “sometimes the government can’t do things that may seem justifiable in the short run,” whether it is locking up Arabs or forcing suspicionless drug tests, “because these things are inconsistent with the Constitution’s enduring values, and in the long run, we rely on those values to protect our liberties.”

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, indeed. We are incredibly lucky to have the ACLU, and a few like Bob Sedler out there, still caring about and fighting for that damn Constitution of ours. Not long before he was on the high court, Robert Jackson, who was also the American prosecutor of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, said something else that has kept running through my head. Before wrapping up his case against Hitler’s henchmen, he turned to the multinational panel of judges.

“If they are not guilty,” he said of the Nazis, “then who is?” Yet he then added, “but if they are guilty, then who is not?” We all might do well to think of that.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail to

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