National crises bring out both the best and worst in people. On September 11th, we saw ordinary Americans step up to the task at hand to become heroes. The thousands of stories of people helping people were a salve to a wounded nation. We have all rightly been proud of the New York fire-fighters and rescue workers who became heroes when their job needed heroes. We will always remember their bravery and their sacrifice as a shining moment of human history.
But crises can also bring out the worst in a people and a nation. Some of the most shameful episodes of U.S. history have arisen out of the panic of crisis, when opportunistic leaders have indulged fear and paranoia and used it to advance long-stifled agendas of political control and repression.
President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft are just such opportunistic leaders. Under the cloak of fear and the blind of terrorism, they are trying to strip away civil liberties in this country.
It is true that we must review our privacy laws and security policies following the horrors of the airplane hijackings. We must see if some judicious re-balancing might create more security while keeping true to the spirit and traditions of American liberty.
But George W. Bush and John Ashcroft are not the men for careful, judicious review. With every day that goes by, with every press conference or speech, it is becoming clearer that they are using the times to grab power. The Attorney General in particular is sullying the heroism of those who died on September 11th trying to rescue their fellow Americans. He is a coward in the unfolding national drama.
Over 1,200 people have been arrested and detained since September 11th. Hundreds of them remain in jail. There is no evidence that any of them aided the September 11th hijackers. Only a handful of the detainees are suspected of having any connection with any terrorists. Attorney General Ashcroft has refused to give basic details about these people – including their names!. He has defended the secrecy by implying that jailing such large numbers of foreigners might maybe have prevented other terror plots, though he’s never provided any evidence or given us any details.
His is a legal standard based on the fear and paranoia level of he and his President are feeling. But we here in America do not lock up anyone based on our paranoia. We need evidence and the evidence of someone’s skin color or national origin is not enough.
The evidence of skin color and national origin was enough in one other time in American history: the shameful rounding up of Japanese-Americans in World War 2. Political opportunities saw the possibilities in American’s fear following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and we constructed concentration camps. Many of those sent there were full American citizens but they had no choice. There weren’t enough clear-headed, decent Americans then to say “enough,” to demand that the U.S. live by it’s birthright mandate to ensure freedom. The property of Japanese Americans was also taken and given to politically-connected landowners who had long coveted it. It was a dark moment in American history. Now, in 2001, we are once again locking up people based only on the country of their origin.
President Bush has by sleight of hand declared that suspected terrorists can be tried by United States military tribunals. This is an extreme step. We have judicial processes that can try criminals and the United Nations does as well. The only reason to use the military tribunals is out of fear that other courts might be more fair and more just. They might be more deliberate and take longer to weigh and consider the evidence. They will surely be seen as less credible in the eyes of the world, however. We will have lost any moral leadership. But more importantly, we will have lost the true meaning of American liberty and justice.
Yesterday, November 30th, John Ashcroft announced a further grab of political power, another attempt to erode civil liberties. He is considering allowing the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin spying on religious and political groups in the U.S.
The New York Times says: “The proposal would loosen one of the most fundamental restrictions on the conduct of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and would be another step by the Bush Administration to modify civil-liberties protections as a means of defending the country against terrorists.”
For those of you who don’t know the history. These restrictions against open spying were put into place in the 1970s when the extent and abuse of former spying became known. The F.B.I. had a widespread network that actively tried to suppress political groups.
Figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., were not only under constant surveillance by the F.B.I. They were harassed, they were blackmailed. Often incriminating evidence would be placed on them and rumors spread to discredit them in their organization.
The federal government actively suppressed political dissent, free speech, and organizing. The regulations Ashcroft wants to overturn were put into place when the extent of this old spying and dirty-tricks campaigning was exposed.
President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft are using the fear of terror to return us to an era when domestic spying and abrogation of liberties was the norm. When fear of foreigners and political dissent gave U.S. officials powers far beyond those that democracy and security require.
The words you read right now are a gift from the U.S. founding fathers and from generations of good Americas who have stood up boldly to demand continued liberty. Like the fire-fighters of September 11th, dissenters and free speech advocates are normal people who were called by the times to be heroes. Our country and are world needs mores heroes now. Speak out. Demand that our freedom not be another victim of September 11th.