War on Terror or War on Freedom?
  by Gene Lyons       November 27, 2001
 Meeting with with congressional leaders from both parties shortly
after the Supreme Court appointed him president, George W. Bush joshed
that, "If this were a dictatorship, this would be a heck of a lot easier."
Chortling at his own wit, he added, "Just so long as I'm dictator." In the
wake of several new laws and decrees granting himself and Attorney General
John Ashcroft the authority to serve as prosecutor, judge, jury and
executioner over anything they choose to call "terrorism," some skeptics
have begun to wonder if Bush isn't one of those people who only says what
he means when he pretends to be joking.

        Could be. As Mark Crispin Miller points out in his book "The Bush
Dyslexicon," the only time Bush doesn't sound like somebody speaking a
foreign language he learned in high school is when he's angry or teasing
somebody. But what's important is that Bush and Ashcroft have used the
September 11 outrage as a pretext to turn America into a country where
government agents can monitor your communications and/or break into your
home without a warrant. They can seize (or create) evidence of loosely
defined subversive activity, arrest you without probable cause, imprison
you indefinitely without notifying anybody, covertly monitor your
conversations with your attorney (if you're allowed one), try you before a
military tribunal, admit hearsay (what an enemy says you said), deny you
the right to see the evidence against you or to confront your accusers,
find you guilty and put you to death.

        All in complete secrecy and with no right of appeal. At a recent
press conference, Ashcroft actually said the government's motive for
concealing the identities of the 1000 foreigners being held in federal
prisons is to protect their "rights and privacy." Sort of the way they did
it in Buenos Aires and Moscow in the bad old days. Your reputation is
always safe with the secret police. As for the rest of us, our patriotic
duty is to trust that Bush knows best in the best of all possible
countries, and get on with shopping. "We believe that when we have arrested
violators of the law that we think have been associated with terrorists,"
Ashcroft explained  "that that is a valuable component of defending the
United States of America."

        Back when the flames were still visible at the World Trade Center,
almost everybody thought so. Ashcroft's rallying cry was "the Constitution
does not apply to terrorists." Few protested what sounded  like bellicose
hyperbole. As, indeed, the U.S Constitution does not apply to Osama bin
Laden and his cohorts holed up in Afghan caves. Having declared holy war on
the United States, one fervently hopes they're about to experience the
martyrdom they seek.

        For that matter, few lost any sleep over those detained. A couple
of months in an American federal prison wouldn't kill anybody;  continuing
lax enforcement of U.S. immigration laws certainly could. Those who decried
"racial profiling" sounded like members of  the crybaby culture mouthing
phrases they'd heard on TV.

        As the star chamber powers have accumulated, however, it's not just
the ACLU who's getting nervous. No less a conservative than New York Times
columnist William Safire has sounded the alarm. "Misadvised by a frustrated
and panic-stricken attorney general," he argued, Bush had seized "what
amounts to dictatorial power." Cowed by terrorists, Americans "are letting
George W. Bush get away with the replacement of the American rule of law
with military kangaroo courts." Safire argues that the new policies mock
not merely the Constitution, but the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
        Safire, who led cheers for Kenneth Starr, thinks that liberals
won't speak up for fear of being called unpatriotic. He may be right for a
change. If so, here's one liberal who thinks he may be understating the
danger. So far, the most draconian policies apply only to aliens. But since
their supposed rationale is to hide intelligence secrets and protect jurors
from reprisals, the same logic would also apply to American citizens.

        A religious crackpot utterly unsuited to be Attorney General, as
recently as 1997 Ashcroft appeared in a Phyllis Schlaffly-sponsored video
arguing that Bill Clinton was conspiring with other Democrats to hand over
the U.S. to a cabal of "international bankers." It doesn't take a psychic
to know  where he and Asa Hutchinson, his running buddy at DEA, would like
to take this thing. Shoot, I could write Ashcroft's speech myself. Didn't
the Taliban traffic in heroin? They did. Don't the NARCOTRAFFICANTES of
Latin America finance terrorism? They do. So why not merge the "war on
terrorism" with the "war on drugs" into a righteous crusade against
America's deadliest enemies? Think Bush would object? Ponder the
consequences. If the Congress and the courts, backed by strong public
opinion, don't stop them now, you can kiss your constitutional freedoms

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