Three cheers for Ashcroft and his efforts to keep us safe

October 28, 2003|By James L. Martin

ARLINGTON, Va. - Like most Americans, I have little patience with busybodies, whether they're nosy neighbors, strangers conducting dinner-hour phone surveys, local police playing "gotcha" with red-light spy cams or Big Brother in Washington.

Because of Washington's awesome power, federal busybodies are the most troubling. That's why every effort should be made to prevent government prying and spying.

That said, we should all offer a hearty "hip-hip-hooray" and three cheers for Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has taken on the thankless task of protecting us from the terrorist thugs who wander among us. And if you don't believe they're here - attending college in Kentucky, pumping gas in Pennsylvania, driving cabs in California - you're living in a dream world.

Our mortal enemies are here. They clearly want to harm us. And no one individual has done more to keep us safe than Mr. Ashcroft.

The attorney general didn't invite the international terrorists to our shores. Nor did he issue them visas or provide them with money or shelter. But he has done everything within his power - and within the bounds of the Constitution - to keep them off-balance and on the run.

Six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, which provided Mr. Ashcroft and other law enforcement officials with an arsenal of new weapons with which to pursue this elusive enemy, including broadened authority to conduct surveillance on U.S. citizens and residents.

While America is engaged in a life-and-death struggle against an enemy in hiding, the American Civil Liberties Union and its allies are throwing a hissy fit about the possibility that the government will abuse the Patriot Act to snoop into the private affairs of innocent U.S. citizens.

Yet as columnist Andrew Sullivan pointed out the other day, "I have yet to see a single example of government censorship in this country since 9/11."

Yes, the Justice Department has "snooped."

For example, last year, Oregon's Mahar "Mike" Hamas was arrested for providing material support and resources to al-Qaida. His neighbors and the civil libertarians on the left screamed that he was the target of an Ashcroft witch hunt. Their howls of protest were silenced when Mr. Hamas pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

Somewhere along the line, you've got to weigh competing interests and make tradeoffs. What is a higher priority: Protecting our families, neighbors, coworkers and communities against mass murderers who hate us and want to see us dead, or worrying about the possibility that an overzealous federal investigator will use the Patriot Act to see what books we've checked out of the library?

In truth, we can guard the safety of the American people and simultaneously protect their privacy against unnecessary intrusion. And both the Patriot Act and the attorney general recognize the need to do so.

Safeguards are built into the process. If the feds want to break into your home and sift through your underwear drawer, for example, they have to follow the same procedures your local police would have to follow: Go before a judge, explain why you feel this compelling need to rifle through somebody's belongings, and get a warrant.

While some of their concerns are legitimate, they miss the main point: America is at war. Mr. Ashcroft has demonstrated clearly that he is sensitive to our concerns. At the same time, he has done more to prevent a repeat of 9/11 than anyone else in or out of government.

James L. Martin is a Marine Corps veteran and president of the 60 Plus Association, a national senior citizens organization. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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