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Freedom in the World

United States

United States

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

The United States of America received a downward trend arrow because of the substantial increase in security measures and an enhanced concern over personal security in the wake of the September 11 terror assault.


On September 11, the United States of America was the target of the most devastating terror attack in the country's history. In a carefully planned and coordinated operation, 19 terrorists, several of whom had received pilot's training, seized four passenger airliners in midair. After taking over the planes, the hijackers altered the flight patterns and used the crafts to attack major symbols of U.S. economic and political power. Two of the planes hurtled into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, completely destroying the buildings. A third plane crashed into the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., while a fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to take back the plane from the hijackers, who may have been on a mission to destroy the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Approximately 3,000 people were killed in the assaults, including the airline passengers, those working in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and rescue workers killed by the collapse of the twin towers.

Founded in 1776 during a revolution against British colonial rule, the U.S.A. began the first modern movement for freedom and self-government in the world. The current system of government began functioning in 1789, following the ratification of the Constitution. Because the founders of the United States distrusted concentrations of centralized government power, they set up a system in which the federal government has three competing centers of power (executive, legislative, and judicial branches) and left many powers with the state governments and the citizenry.

The events of September 11 transformed the lives of Americans to a degree not experienced since the beginnings of World War II. A series of security measures were instituted at airports, government offices, private office buildings, sports arenas, and other venues. A campaign to spread the potentially deadly anthrax virus through the mail also shook public confidence. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to a number of prominent Americans, including television and print journalists, President George W. Bush, members of the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court. A number of people, mostly postal workers and mail clerks, were infected, and several died from the disease. The terror attacks and their aftermath had important economic consequences as well, contributing to a downturn that had begun before September 11 and exerting a devastating effect on the airlines, tourism, and other sectors.

The September 11 mission was carried out by men from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries who belonged to the Al Qaeda network of Islamic extremists directed by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi native who made his headquarters in Afghanistan. In the attack's aftermath, President Bush demanded that the Taliban regime that controlled Afghanistan turn bin Laden and his confederates over to the United States. After the Taliban refused to comply, the United States and Great Britain began military operations aimed at overthrowing the Taliban and capturing or killing bin Laden and other terrorists. After a bombing campaign lasting a little more than one month, Taliban resistance quickly collapsed, and the forces of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, supported by the United States and Great Britain, swept to victory; in the process, many of the Al Qaeda adherents and Islamic extremists from outside Afghanistan were captured or killed.

The war on terrorism resulted in a significant transformation of the country's political landscape. Prior to September 11, the priorities of the Bush administration revolved around various domestic issues, such as education, medical care, and tax reductions. Although the Bush administration had pushed through legislation that brought tax reductions to most citizens, the rest of Bush's legislative package faced an uncertain future and his ratings in opinion polls were showing signs of weakness.

The administration had also come under fire for what critics called its unilateralist foreign policy. The administration rejected a number of international treaties and withdrew from the negotiations over the Kyoto protocols on global warming. The administration suffered a further setback when the Republican party lost control of the Senate, the country's upper legislative chamber, when James Jeffords, a moderate Republican from Vermont, announced that he was aligning himself with the Democrats in the chamber. Jeffords' switch gave the Democrats a 50-49 member margin in the Senate, with Jeffords listing himself as an independent. The Republicans retained control of the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, by a 221-212 margin. Bush also suffered somewhat from a perception that his presidency was not completely legitimate, a perception due to the intense controversy over the 2000 presidential election, in which the vote count in the state of Florida was contested by the Democratic candidate, Al Gore. The controversy raged for more than one month until the Supreme Court finally decided, by a one-vote margin, to stop a recount of the Florida ballots, an action that effectively gave the election to Bush.

All this changed after September 11. Bush focused his entire energy on the war in Afghanistan, efforts to destroy the terrorist network in the United States and other countries, and measures to shore up domestic security against potential terrorist attacks. As is often the case during wartime, the president enjoyed strong support from the American people. Bush further bolstered his standing by reducing the level of political partisanship and reaching compromises with Democrats on issues where the two parties had differing perspectives. At the same time, the controversy over the Bush-Gore election was largely forgotten as the country concentrated on September 11 and its aftermath.

Although the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda enjoyed wide support from the American people, several measures put forward by the president and by his attorney general, John Ashcroft, provoked criticism from civil libertarians. One proposal that drew particular criticism called for the creation of military tribunals to hear cases brought against foreign terrorists. Critics said the military courts would represent the abandonment of the United States' historical commitment to a fair trial and were unnecessary since past experience had demonstrated that civilian courts were capable of dealing effectively with terrorist cases. A comprehensive anti-terrorism bill was also passed by Congress and signed by President Bush. The bill increased the criminal penalties for those who commit terrorist acts or harbor or support terrorists; gave the attorney general the power to detain immigrants without charges for up to seven days; provided expanded power to monitor telephone calls and e-mails of terrorism suspects; and made it easier for federal officials to gain search warrants in terrorism cases.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The United States has a vibrant and highly competitive political system. In electing a president, the United States uses a unique system that combines a popular vote and the ballots cast by an electoral college. The electoral college apportions votes to each state based on population; the electors then cast all the ballots of a particular state for the candidate who won the popular vote in that state, no matter what the margin. The electoral college vote determines the winner of the election. Under this system, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency even though an opposing candidate may have won a greater number of popular votes nationwide.

The presidential election of 2000 was one of the few elections in which a candidate won a majority of the electoral college votes while losing the popular vote. Further complicating the election was a bitter and highly partisan controversy over the disposition of the ballots in the state of Florida, a crucial issue that ultimately decided the outcome of the election. Both George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, and Al Gore, his Democratic rival, claimed to have won a victory in Florida with razor-thin margins. Much of the controversy revolved around a flawed balloting system that made it difficult to determine which candidate had received the voter's designation on certain ballots. Eventually, the Supreme Court prohibited a recount of the Florida votes, thus effectively declaring Bush the winner.

With a few exceptions, there has been no curtailment in the commitment of the United States to civil liberties since September 11. The press remains free, although complaints have been raised that a few commentators and editorialists who dissented from the prevailing view on the terror acts and the government's response were subjected to harsh criticism and occasionally sanctions from editors or writers. Some also complained that criticism directed at professors who expressed dissenting views had a "chilling effect" on academic freedom and open discussion generally. There were no restrictions placed on the freedom of assembly, and demonstrations opposed to U.S. policies and the war in Afghanistan were held in a number of cities, though participation was low.

A more serious problem was an upsurge of anti-Muslim sentiment, especially in the immediate aftermath of the terror incidents. There were reports of assaults and several murders of Muslims and Sikhs who were mistaken as Muslims, as well as hate mail and telephone calls with hate messages directed at Muslims. A number of students from Islamic countries withdrew from universities in the United States and returned to their native lands, and some Muslim immigrants who had American citizenship returned to their home lands. Some Arab-American organizations and civil liberties groups were concerned about a federal directive calling for police interviews to be conducted with some 5,000 men who had come recently as immigrants or students from Muslim countries. They also complained of the policy of keeping men arrested after September 11 in detention without releasing their names to the public and of monitoring the conversations between a limited number of terror suspects and their attorneys. At the same time, many political leaders, including President Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, spoke out strongly against anti-Muslim discrimination, and local officials made special efforts to reassure citizens of Middle Eastern backgrounds.

A side effect of the controversy over the treatment of Muslims was a decrease in tensions over relations between black and white Americans. The degree of racial polarization was suggested by the voting patterns in the 2000 presidential election, in which Gore, the Democratic nominee, won over ninety percent of the black vote while George Bush won a majority of the white vote. Yet contentious issues like affirmative action and racial economic disparities were temporarily put aside after September 11. The terror assaults also changed American attitudes towards what is known as "racial profiling," or the singling out of members of a particular racial or ethnic group for police scrutiny. Previously, the profiling controversy had focused on police treatment of blacks and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics. After September 11, Arab-Americans complained of being the victims of police profiling. At the same time, many Americans indicated more tolerance for profiling policies out of concerns over a renewal of terrorist activities.

Although Americans became less supportive of the liberal immigration policies that the United States had embraced for the past decade, there was no move on the part of the government to shrink the number of immigrants permitted to legally enter the country, nor to restrict the number of foreign students permitted to study at U.S. universities. Additionally, despite some proposals to restrict the immigration of applicants from Muslim countries, no action was taken to limit immigration by any particular group. There was, however, a toughening of the government's attitude towards undocumented immigrants, a number of whom were deported to their homelands. In the fallout from the terror assault was the scuttling, at least temporarily, of a proposal to greatly expand work visas for Mexican citizens who were seeking jobs in the United States.