Facing the real enemy 

OK, kids. Time to ask the dangerous but necessary question: Who represents the greater long-term threat to America: Osama bin Laden or John Ashcroft? This may earn me a body-cavity search with an umbrella when I fly to New York this weekend, but it seems increasingly clear the answer is our right-wing ideologue attorney general, who has been using terrorism as a cover to permanently weaken our rights and freedoms.

And this should frighten us all far more than a few poisoned lettters.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no use for terrorists, or religious maniacs of any kind, especially the current Islamic variety, who seem the most murderous and least rational of all. I would rejoice at bin Laden’s demise, and frankly hope Mohammed Atta burned to death very slowly.

Yet nasty lunatics cannot defeat America — unless we let them. What made this country was our tradition of civil rights, civil liberties and of the rule of law. What made this country great was the Constitution’s protection of the rights of minorities, even ones most of us might dislike and even, perhaps especially, the rights of criminals.

Yes, wartime is different. Bush & Co. are trying now to have the best of both worlds. The president says we are at war, and then urges everyone to go live our daily lives as if we were blissfully at peace.

Doesn’t quite work, as we will increasingly see. Let’s, however, accept that this is a war. I’ve no problem with inconvenience, lines, having my luggage searched or my shoes X-rayed. Nor can I object to the government finally enforcing the immigration laws.

But we are also facing a stealth campaign aimed at our privacy, civil rights and freedoms. And the architect of that is this administration. We should have started worrying when we noticed their penchant for coming up with names straight out of George Orwell’s 1984: “Office of Homeland Security” or “The USA Patriot Act.” We know this crowd isn’t exactly into literary allusion, but hey. And what is actually happening is much scarier.

The USA Patriot Act (how could any congressman vote against something called that?) gives, for one thing, the attorney general vast powers to designate domestic groups “terrorist organizations” and to deport any noncitizen belonging to them. What’s wrong with that? Maybe nothing, if we are talking about Al-Qaeda. But what makes us think it will stop there? John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s attorney general, would have loved to have had such a law to use against Vietnam protesters.

J. Edgar Hoover, the scariest secret policeman ever to don a dress, would have considered the NAACP a terrorist organization, to think nothing of the Nation of Islam. What makes us think any of us would be safe?

The Patriot Act also greatly expands the government’s ability to conduct secret searches — without telling the person who’s been searched. It gives the FBI broad access to sensitive business records, and allows the government to indefinitely detain noncitizens on minor visa violations.

Not only that, the new law allows any intelligence agency to share any such information they’ve obtained secretly during criminal investigations with all our other intelligence agencies — without judicial review! (Even the cold warriors knew enough to keep the FBI and CIA apart.) If that’s not an Rx for Big Brother, I don‘t know what is.

There’s lots more bad stuff in the Patriot Act, and if you don’t like it, you’re a bit too late. It’s law now — and praise be to U.S. Reps. John Conyers and John Dingell for refusing to be stampeded and voting no.

But Ashcroft hasn’t stopped there. The Bureau of Prisons just announced it will allow (read: encourage) the government to violate the sanctity of attorney-client privilege by listening in on conversations between inmates and their lawyers. “This is a terrifying precedent,” said Laura Murphy, who runs the ACLU Washington office.

Sure is. The right to a fair and effective defense is the cornerstone of our legal system. We didn’t need to throw it out when we faced real enemies, like the Nazis and the Soviets. Ashcroft and Bush seemingly aren’t brave enough to trust the system the founding fathers built.

By the way — where has the brave and bold media been?

Hiding, for the most part, behind their really cool Pentagon-supplied computer-animated simulations. Not questioning a thing, most of them.

The truth is, we know precious little about how the “war” is going, except that Osama gets his videotapes out whenever he wants to, and the Taliban has not yet invaded New Jersey. We know our government hasn’t learned one thing Gomer Pyle couldn’t have figured out about the anthrax. We know that thousands of noncitizens have been arrested.

They are being held somewhere, we don’t know where, having we don’t know what done to them. And, basically, our famous phony watchdog press hasn’t raised a peep. Instead, Dan Rather blubbered like a baby on “Letterman,” and said he’d serve wherever his commander-in-chief sent him.

Perhaps he thought 70-year-olds with problems controlling their emotions are in military demand. He’s far from the worst; we have creatures like Tucker Carlson calling for a debate on whether to consider torture. There have been a few brave souls, like Anthony Lewis. But mostly, a generation that spent years boasting how they stood up to the government in Vietnam have been trying to outpatriot each other.

We’ll pay for this, sooner or later, and future generations will wonder how we could have so easily abandoned our principles. At least I hope they will. Good night and good luck, as Edward R. Murrow used to say. By the way, some thought he was a terrorist too. Ask Joe McCarthy.

Jack Lessenberry is a contributing editor to Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]

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