Threat to liberty deserves censure

August 14, 2002|By Molly Ivins

AUSTIN, TEXAS — If there's another terrorist attack, and if it's from a certain ethnic community ... that terrorists are from, you can forget about civil rights in this country. I think we will have a return to Korematsu [internment camps].

- Peter N. Kirsanow, U.S. civil rights commissioner, July 22 in Detroit

AUSTIN, Texas - After his remarks were criticized, Mr. Kirsanow said he was warning against camps, not advocating them, but he also told the Detroit Free Press, "Not too many people will be crying in their beer if there are more detentions, more stops, more profiling."

With a civil rights commissioner like this guy on the job, we haven't got a thing to worry about.

Civil libertarians have a slight tendency to look as though we've just been fired out of a cannon. We are forever hearing the sounds of jackbooted fascism approaching. Nearly every time someone complains about a dirty movie theater or a KKK rally, we can be counted upon to leap up and announce that the First Amendment is in dire peril. To be a good civil libertarian is to spend one's life in a fairly constant state of alarm, which leaves the group somewhat frazzled. On top of that, we constantly have to defend the most disgusting people - on the grounds that disgusting people have rights, too.

It's a little-known fact that defending civil liberties can also be a whale of a lot of fun, requiring only beer, imagination and a mild disrespect for authority to become a genuinely entertaining and even riotously funny pastime. One is not required to like the disgusting specimens whose rights are being violated. In fact, one is, thanks to the First Amendment, perfectly free to denounce them with splendid invective.

But it is time to take note that we are getting ourselves into a silly fight. Now is not the time to dismiss concerns over civil liberties as alarmist. "O pshaw," is not a helpful response to violations of the Constitution.

Worse than the dismissive pooh-poohing of concern is the implication that those who speak up on behalf of those caught up in the post-Sept. 11 sweep who have still not been charged with anything are themselves somehow unpatriotic. Boy, is that standing the world on its head. Seems to me every sentient patriot should be concerned.

The notion that a "liberal federal judge" did something wrong by ordering the government to reveal the names of those it is holding is nonsense. Of course the government must account for those it has in custody. Even if one had been inclined after Sept. 11 to give the government a few weeks to separate the sheep from the goats after its roundup, you cannot hold someone in jail for a year without showing he or she did something wrong. Fish or cut bait.

Of the 1,200 detained, 752 were charged with immigration violations and are now stuck in the notorious black hole of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's clumsy system. Accounts vary as to how many are still being held.

But by no possible stretch of the Constitution can the government's action be justified. Secret arrests are the stuff of old novels like The Count of Monte Cristo. Not since pre-revolutionary France has it been legal to imprison someone without explaining by whom and of what they are accused.

Judge Gladys Kessler made an exception where the government can show that a material witness in a terrorism investigation is involved and ruled that the government need not provide details of the arrests. But as she noted, the government did not claim or even hint that any of the detainees has connections to terrorism. Judge Kessler seems to have considerably more respect for the Constitution than Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Some of the super-patriots running around need to get a grip. We can't make ourselves safer by making ourselves less free.

Molly Ivins is a syndicated columnist.

Columnist Jules Witcover is on vacation.

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