After last week's sickening performance by Attorney General John
and his former colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee, it's tempting to
paraphrase the immortal words of Margaret Thatcher: Have the American
people gone all wobbly in the face of terrorism, or is it just that the politicians
think they have? How any self-respecting group of American citizens, much less
a group of U.S. senators, could sit politely and listen to an intellectual thug like
Ashcroft equate their concern for constitutional rights to support for Osama bin
Laden beggars my poor imagination. Only Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina
showed any guts at all.
It's worth emphasizing that Ashcroft's most offensive remarks occurred
carefully scripted opening remarks. "To those who scare peace-loving people with
phantoms of lost liberty," he said "my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists,
for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to
America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good
will to remain silent in the face of evil."
What rubbish. As a stinging editorial in the Sacramento Bee pointed
"draconian measures are exactly what America's enemies want." Evoking crude
repression is terrorism's first goal; it's how fanaticism grows. Slate's Jacob Weisberg
commented that "as someone who was actually prepared to listen to Attorney General
John Ashcroft's defense of military tribunals and other security measures, I have to say
that I was completely disgusted by his appearance. It was an arrogant, bullying
performance that went a long way to substantiating the views of his harshest critics."
Frank Rich's column in the New York Times was bitterly entitled "Confessions of a Traitor."
To a degree, the administration sandbagged Senate critics, hinting before
that a very limited number of military tribunals were anticipated only in extreme
circumstances, that most would be public, that the Uniform Code of Military Justice
would be observed, and judicial appeals would be heard-sensible modifications of
President Bush's executive order that would reassure civil libertarians and edgy allies
that the U.S. isn't in danger of sliding into police state abuses.
That's not how it went when Ashcroft started talking. He lectured the
as if they were a pack of Cub Scouts and Brownies. America's enemies are dedicated
evildoers, "plotting, planning and waiting to kill again. They enjoy the benefits of our
free society even as they commit themselves to our destruction. They exploit our
openness--not randomly or haphazardly--but by deliberate, premeditated design."
If that sounds an awful lot like the old Commie conspiracy of legend
and song, that's
partly because Al Qaida's organizing principles are borrowed from Bakunin and other
19th century Russian revolutionaries. Dostoyevsky saw it all coming in his clunky
masterpiece "The Devils." But it's also because Ashcroft's own frame of reference
is Cold War fundamentalist dogma of the kind promulgated at Arkansas' own Harding
College from the 1940s onward. It's Chicken Little with a Bible: granting the enemy
near-Satanic powers, it calls for a rigidly conformist, paranoid authoritarianism in response.
The trick for a democracy under attack is to keep its courage up. To
fundamental rights at the first sign of trouble is the coward's way. Typically, meanwhile,
Ashcroft was never more solemn than when he couldn't bother to be serious. He appears
to think guns have more rights than people. Despite Al Qaida manuals found in Afghanistan
urging would-be terrorists in America "to obtain an assault rifle legally," his chief aide at
the Justice Department denied the FBI access to gun purchase records, preventing it from
learning how many of the 1000-odd Muslim men locked up since Sept. 11 had been
shopping for weapons. No single fact could have been more crucial, yet Ashcroft claims
the law gave him no choice.
"In other words," wrote the Miami Herald's Carl Hiassen "we'll
lock you up with no trial,
interrogate you with no lawyer present, secretly wiretap your friends and relatives--but
heaven forbid we invade your privacy by checking to see whether you've bought any guns
during your stay in the United States."
Equally telling was the attorney general's sneering contempt for the
criminal justice system
over which he presides. "Are we supposed to read them [accused terrorists] the Miranda rights,"
he asked "hire a flamboyant defense lawyer, bring them back to the United States to create a
new cable network of Osama TV?"
Putting aside the fact that federal prosecutors not named Kenneth Starr
convict more than 90%
of persons they indict, almost nobody advocates treating enemy soldiers as domestic criminals.
If Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda inner circle have chosen a warrior's martyrdom in the
Afghan mountains, then so be it. But if the United States abandons its constitutional freedoms
in a spasm of paranoia and fear, it will have granted bin Laden a victory he could never have
won on a battlefield.