Ashcroft's Boomerang of Injustice

Saturday, December 8, 2001

o paraphrase the words of Ronald Reagan -- “There they go again.” I’m referring to John Ashcroft, Attorney General, and George W. Bush, self-styled cowboys in the New Frontier of Terrorism, our self-appointed arbiters of law enforcement and justice. Our ‘boys have issued a series of decrees that almost gleefully sweep aside the Constitution, civil rights, and American ideals as if they were inconvenient cobwebs obstructing the path towards the righteous eradication of terrorists.

This is hardly a surprise coming from Ashcroft, whose considerable intellect barely disguises a bigoted, Jesse Helms-like zeal for disregarding civil liberties of those who disagree with his ideology. His Machiavellian efforts to this end bear an almost fetishistic stench, as they did back in his days as governor of Missouri, when he routinely flouted Federal orders to enforce civil rights laws he didn’t agree with.


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But I am extraordinarily disappointed in President Bush, who for the most part has risen to the occasion after September 11, taking great care to remind Americans to differentiate between Muslims and terrorists, to aggressively encourage and defend American values via the campaign against the Taliban and terror networks worldwide.

How sad that he signed into law an act, hastily passed by Congress in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and named “The U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act,” – which stands for The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. Thanks to this new law, the attorney general gets to decide what the definition of terrorism is, when to detain a person, why, for how long, and when s/he gets released – if ever. (Check out a perfect example of how this has already gone terribly wrong.)

The fairness of evidence is replaced with the flimsiness of mere suspicion. All parties involved should be ashamed that they had to cloak an incredibly unpatriotic expansion of executive-branch powers in such a mindlessly patriotic slogan. But that’s only the beginning of the fun.

Instead of due process and fair trial, accused ‘terrorists,’ the fair definition of which is now anybody’s guess, will likely face military tribunals, well-explained in a November 25 New York Times article:

“Suspected terrorists will be tried not before a jury but rather a commission made up primarily - though not necessarily exclusively - of military officers. The suspects and their lawyers, who may also be military officers appointed to represent them, will be tried without the same access to the evidence against them that defendants in civilian trials have. The evidence of their guilt does not have to meet the familiar standard ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ but must simply ‘have probative value to a reasonable person.’ There will be no appeals. ‘The commission itself is going to be unique,’ said one military officer involved in the discussions.”

No shit.

Time magazine’s Charles Krauthammer, in a November 25 essay, offered a myopic defense of the military tribunals, claiming the secrecy was essential to nation security. He cited the trials of those who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, saying that trial evidence was publicized that the U.S. knew Osama bin Laden was using satellite phones. (Shortly thereafter, those phones were no longer in use, robbing the U.S. of a surveillance tool.)

Come on, Charles. Is this reason to overreact and justify trials where nobody bothers to even produce evidence? Let judges decide on a case-by-case, situation-by-situation basis, what evidence to seal, and when to bar the press from certain proceedings. But don’t destroy the integrity of the proceedings.

Mr. Krauthammer also says “we don’t need” the media circus of a trial to give Osama bin Laden a free publicity platform to espouse his twisted views. What are we afraid of? When you expose such garbage to the light of day, it will wither and die on its own. I believe that a fair, public trial, with a fair punishment – and if it’s death, so be it – would do a world of good to show the planet what an evil, selfish lunatic bin Laden and his followers really are.

And lastly, Mr. Krauthammer trots out the tired old “We’re at war” justification. First of all, I don’t recall Congress having issued a declaration of war that would endow the president with the powers he is so freely wielding at the moment. Admittedly, in the fight against terrorism, it’s a bit difficult to name the enemy, as we could the Empire of Japan. Nonetheless, if we accept the argument that “rules are different in wartime,” circumvention of due process is still not justifiable. Do we execute prisoners of war just because we’re mad they shot at us two days ago? Do we arrest thousands of people and lock them in camps for having a different ethnicity than our norm? (Oops.) We have taken great care to force the Northern Alliance to restrain their impulses to massacre captured/surrendering Taliban troops. Why aren’t we prepared to restrain ourselves?

For the most part, beyond the tribunals, the administration hasn’t bothered – big shock – to publicize the new rules; in fact, many of the new provisions have quietly been implemented in internal memos; in some cases the rule changes have not even been documented in the Federal Register. The Attorney General isn’t troubled, though. He has icily defended his new Draconian authority by explaining that he doesn’t think foreigners who attack the U.S. deserve the protection of the U.S. justice system.

But by reacting in this manner, by gutting our own system of justice and flouting our own Constitution, we hand the terrorists just the victory they wanted on September 11. They want our way of life – freedom of expression, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – the tolerance and acceptance of diversity – they want these things exterminated. By sinking to their level of arbitrary, summary justice, we become like them. If anyone accused of committing a terrorist crime against the United States is truly guilty, our justice system will nail them, and do it fairly.

By allowing the accused the honor of our own due process, we not only show our grace and moral superiority, but we send a more important message – that we don’t reserve the benefits of our civilization for those within our own borders. The respect we show one another as Americans should extend outwards to all citizens of earth, because, as the document said which launched our country – “We hold these truths to be self-evident… that all men are created equal … and are endowed with certain inalienable rights.” We betray our own principles if we deny these rights without due process to those terrorists who denied them to us.

Is it right to want to wipe out terrorism and ensure our way of life? Yes. But not if we do so by eradicating our values in the process. We do not have to compromise the power and scope of the righteous cause for which we fight. If Osama bin Laden and his followers want to die rather than be captured by the “infidels,” then – as a Pentagon official remarked last week – we will be happy to accommodate them. If they are captured alive, though, let us show the world our sense of fairness, that even if these disgusting people don’t deserve our respect or indeed to continue living, we shall not deprive them of either until such time as we prove they have forfeited those rights by their own actions.

As our nation has done in its finer moments, let us once again acknowledge that to deserve the privileges we fight to defend, we must fight to extend them to all.


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