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Published: Friday, 10/24/2003

Son of Rosenbergs says climate of fear erodes civil liberties

Robert Meeropol, a lawyer and activist whose parents were executed in 1953 for conspiring to commit espionage, said yesterday at the University of Toledo that he sees “chilling parallels” between the McCarthy era and events since Sept. 11, 2001.

He spoke to 100 people at the UT College of Law, urging his audience to fight for civil liberties. He said individual freedoms are being eroded, as they were in the 1950s, by leaders who use foreign enemies as an excuse to quiet domestic dissent. “Don't fall for the freedom-versus-security trap,” he said. “There is no proof that having fewer freedoms will help national security.”

Mr. Meeropol's parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed when he was 6 years old. The government had accused them of giving secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

No one in the United States has been executed for espionage since the Rosenbergs, but Mr. Meeropol noted that the Justice Department is now trying to seek the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui, a follower of Osama bin Laden.

“We haven't seen the wave of capital conspiracy cases that I feared would happen in this country. Things are actually worse than I feared,” Mr. Meeropol said. “People are being detained in legal limbo or waiting to face military tribunals. We have an administration that is attempting an end-run around the criminal justice system.”

Mr. Meeropol said the same climate of fear that allowed the 1950s government to persecute suspected Communists has prevented citizens and politicians from speaking out against the Patriot Act, which critics say erodes citizens' civil liberties.

But he said people are starting to criticize the Bush administration for the Patriot Act.

“We can't let our government conduct war on our civil liberties in the name of war on terrorism,” he said. “It is a time when we can reach people by talking. ... We need to get active.”

After the talk, several audience members praised Mr. Meeropol's presentation.

“I like how he tied the situation with his parents to the situation today,” law student Lauren Baker said. “I got a sense that history kind of repeats itself, and we need to learn from our mistakes.”

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