Mr. Ashcroft, let's not repeat past mistakes
By Molly Ivins, 11/21/2001
WHOA! The problem is the premise. We are having one of those circular arguments about how many civil liberties we can trade away in order to make ourselves safe from terrorism, without even looking at the assumption - can we can make ourselves safer by making ourselves less free? There is no inverse relationship between freedom and security. Less of one does not lead to more of the other. People with no rights are not safe from terrorist attack.
Exactly what do we want to strike out of the US Constitution that we think would prevent terrorist attacks? Let's see, if civil liberties had been suspended before Sept. 11, would law enforcement have noticed Mohamed Atta? Would the FBI have opened an investigation of Zacarias Massoui, as Minneapolis agents wanted to do?
The CIA had several of the Sept. 11 actors on their lists of suspected terrorists. Exactly what civil liberty prevented them from doing anything about it?
In the case of a suspected terrorist, the government already had the right to search, wiretap, intercept, detain, examine computer and financial records, and do anything else it needed to do. There's a special court they go to for subpoenas and warrants. As it happens, they didn't do it.
Changing the law retroactively is not going to change that. Certainly, we had a visa system that had more holes than Swiss cheese. What does that have to do with civil liberties? When we don't give an agency enough money to do its job, it doesn't get done.
As you may have heard, Immigration and Naturalization has been a bit overwhelmed in recent years. In fairness to law enforcement, it's hard to imagine how anyone could have seen this one coming. It's always easy to point the finger after the fact. It was just a damnable act.
Absolutely nothing in the Constitution would have prevented us from stopping Sept. 11, so why would we want to change it? I also think we're arguing from the wrong historical analogies. Yes, during past wars civil liberties have been abrogated and the courts have even upheld this. We regret it later, but we don't seem to learn from that.
But the Bush administration's rhetoric aside, we are not at war. War is when the armed forces of one country attack the armed forces of another. What we're looking at is more akin to the 19th century problem with anarchists, the terrorists of their day. And we made some memorable errors by giving in to hysteria over anarchists.
In the infamous 1886 Haymarket Square affair in Chicago, after a bomb killed seven policemen, eight labor leaders were rounded up and "tried," even though there was no evidence against them - four hanged, one suicide, three sentenced. Historians agree they were all innocent.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, executed in 1927, were finally exonerated by the state of Massachusetts in 1977. That outbreak of hysteria over "foreign anarchists" led to, among other abuses, a wave of arrests for DWI: "Driving While Italian." And no one was ever made safer from an anarchist bomb by the execution of innocent people. We all know other groups, from the Irish to the blacks to the Chinese, have been targeted for legal abuse over the years - all betrayals of our laws, values, and the sacrifices of generations. Let's not do it again.
The counter-case was neatly put by David Blunkett, the British home secretary: "We can live in a world with airy-fairy civil liberties and believe the best in everybody - and they will destroy us." Unless, of course, we destroy ourselves first.
"Fascism" is not a word I throw around lightly, but what do you think happened in Germany in the 1930s? The US Constitution was written by men who had just been through a long, incredibly nasty war. They did not consider the Bill of Rights a frivolous luxury, to be in force only in times of peace and prosperity, put aside when the going gets tough. The Founders knew from tough going. They weren't airy-fairy guys.
We put away Tim McVeigh and the terrorists who did the 1993 World Trade Center bombing without damaging the Constitution. If the laws break into some apartment full of Al Qaeda literature and plans of airports, absolutely nothing prevents them from hauling in the suspects and having a nice, cozy, cop-like chat with them. Because there's evidence. That's what they call "due process."
When there is no evidence, no grounds for suspicion, we do not hold citizens indefinitely and without legal representation. Foreign citizens have only limited rights in this country, depending on their means of entry - different for refugees, permanent residents, etc. So what's the problem?
Attorney General John Ashcroft has been so busy busting dying marijuana smokers in California and doctors in Oregon who carry out their terminal patients' wishes to die in peace, he obviously has no time to consider the Constitution. But he did swear to uphold it.
Molly Ivins is a syndicated columnist.
This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 11/21/2001.