Criticism of Ashcroft unleashes readers' ire Defending civil liberties proves to be unpopular with readers

January 01, 2002|By Susan Reimer

I RECEIVED LOTS of cards and letters over the holidays, and most of them made me long for those Christmas letters supposedly written by the family dog.

I would have read a dozen cataloging a family's triumphs in 2001 if I could have been spared just one of the blistering indictments I opened at the office. But I have learned it is easier to provoke newspaper readers than it is to irritate my daughter in front of her friends.

The offending column was a recent one I wrote suggesting that Attorney General John Ashcroft, hyperventilating over his ineffective response to both domestic terror networks and mysterious anthrax letters, might be throwing the civil liberties baby out with the homeland security bath water.

I wrote that his plan to round up and detain indefinitely men of Middle Eastern descent was chilling. I also said that demanding that these men provide the names, addresses and phone numbers of friends and family, as well as establishing government guidelines for largely secret, military tribunals, were just the sort of tactics used by the repressive regimes we regularly criticize.

Reader responses ranged from "you sound like a good friend of Ben Laden" (Osama's cousin in Jersey, I guess) to a stern suggestion to return to writing amusing domestic anecdotes and leave the foreign policy to the men God put in charge.

"Definitely there is another side of your writing I do not like," wrote Helen from Baltimore, who is canceling her subscription to The Sun.

"It's columns like yours that make us want to throw up," wrote Betty from Oregon. "You may be a mother of two, but I am a mother of five, grandmother of nine and lived much longer than you," she continued.

"What have you ever done to contribute to the security and liberty of this country," wrote Arthur from Wisconsin. "As a Veteran, I can only feel contempt for you. Your subversive writing does not help anyone in this time of crisis. I wonder if you are ignorant of the gravity of the world situation or just plain stupid."

Arthur also invoked the name of the nephew, who is a member of the Marine special forces serving in Afghanistan right now, suggesting that he would be ashamed of me.

Buddy from Wisconsin wrote to say he was praying for my children.

A couple wrote that all of their friends and relatives were as disappointed as they were with my "horrible remarks regarding Mr. Ashcroft.

"We think you should take your head out of the sand and be thankful for a highly intelligent, moral, fair man who is working hard against terrorism." They added that I owed the attorney general a public apology.

Another letter opened with "To: Susan Reimer," because, the writer explained, I did not deserve the courtesy greeting of "Dear."

The chorus of boos was not unanimous. A couple of readers wrote to praise my column questioning Ashcroft's draconian methods.

"It's about time that journalists make some noise," wrote Robert of Milwaukee.

Katy, also from Milwaukee, wrote to praise my "moderate, common-sense view." She said, "I know that takes courage in the arena of loud extremist voices." I wondered if she'd been opening my mail.

This country is trying to find its way through the emotional smoke and haze of Sept. 11. Patriotic juices are flowing fast and voices are loud.

I suggested in that column about Ashcroft's anti-terrorist master plan that we should not suspend the basic liberties which separate us from our enemies. I was talking about due process, but it seems I should have included free speech.

If we brand dissenting speech as traitorous, if we tolerate no disagreement over ideas, if we forbid each other to question government fiat, if we use this crisis as the reason to suspend debate, we do ourselves more harm than Osama bin Laden dared hope to do.

Since the events of Sept. 11, citizens everywhere have found ways to support and comfort loved ones and strangers. We have put our political differences aside and rallied to a president who came to office in one of the most divisive elections in our history.

But we must leave space in this circle of love and solidarity for dissenters, second-guessers and those who are just plain nervous about the course our government takes against its new and mysterious enemies.

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