In the name of war, liberty under siege

November 25, 2001|By Crispin Sartwell

THEY HATE our freedom. But they're warming to us these days.

Our government is systematically attempting to abridge due process, especially for Arab-Americans, and to control information that we need to arrive at reasonable judgments about the war.

These procedures go far beyond what is needed to protect U.S. soldiers and fight domestic terrorism.

Here's some of the ways that basic constitutional freedoms have been under attack since Sept. 11:

The Justice Department has interned more than 1,000 people without charges and refuses to reveal how many people have been held.

We are assured they are being held as "potential suspects" or associates of terrorists. We have no way to judge whether that's true because of the secrecy surrounding the procedures.

Some of these people are being denied basic access to legal counsel in that their conversations with their lawyers can be monitored, a basic violation of constitutional principles.

President Bush has given himself the right to try noncitizens secretly in military courts, without the possibility of appeal and with every punishment available, including execution.

This is a right the executive branch does not possess, at least without a congressional declaration of war. And it is a right that it does not need. If people are guilty of terrorism, that needs to be shown by normal legal standards. Under existing law they can be charged, they can be held and they can be tried.

The Bush administration is trying to establish a system of trial and punishment that directly contradicts and circumvents the American judicial system and the balance of powers.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has launched a massive project to "canvass" Arab men between the ages of 18 and 33. They are to be interviewed and information is to be generated as to their whereabouts. This is racial profiling with a vengeance.

Anti-terrorist legislation was passed by the House as the "Patriot Act" and in the Senate as the "Uniting and Strengthening America Act," implying that opponents of the legislation are unpatriotic or opposed to uniting America.

The bill gave various government bodies the right to conduct much more surveillance of Americans much more easily than was previously possible. Our electronic communications can be monitored essentially with no restrictions in the context of a terrorist investigation.

Search warrants can be executed secretly, permitting government break-ins of private homes without the people being searched ever being told that they are under scrutiny.

Mr. Bush established the Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security by executive order, essentially to oversee surveillance and quasi-legal punishments.

The White House has pressured network television news operations to censor statements by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the Taliban. It evidently believes that only its own propaganda should be broadcast, even though bin Laden can expect virtually no support in this country, regardless of what he says.

The tape released by bin Laden on Nov. 3 showed how he and his supporters see the world, interpreting events worldwide as a systematic attack on Islam by Christians and Jews.

This view, while it may be wrong, is not ridiculous and must be answered with words and with policy.

But few Americans will ever hear that point of view expressed. That the administration made this move and that the networks acquiesced shows that neither understands the function of a free press in a democracy.

The government aspires to be the only source of information and interpretation about the war. This begins with the bizarre idea that naming wars - "Infinite Justice," "Enduring Freedom" - is the job of the public relations department at the Pentagon.

When the Taliban took reporters to sites of civilian casualties, they were condemned by the U.S. government and at times by their own bosses - even though the reporters emphasized repeatedly that they were being "handled" and that the information they generated was accurate.

One of the last targets hit by U.S. bombs in Kabul before the Northern Alliance took the city was the office of Al-Jazeera, the Qatari news channel that is one of the few sources of information on the conflict that is not supervised by the U.S. government.

The sum of all these facts should not be exaggerated.

No one has revoked the Constitution or declared a police state.

That much is obvious from the chorus of criticism from the press.

Nevertheless, these are serious abridgements of the basic liberties we enjoy.

If our freedoms are to endure "Operation Enduring Freedom," the Bush administration had better think hard about what we're fighting for.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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