Must Freedom Be Another Victim?

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.