Jonah Goldberg
Like everyone else, I'd moved on from the public debates over military tribunals, racial profiling, detentions, etc. But, unfortunately, like crabgrass that feeds on inattention, a liberal canard has been growing wildly in the absence of public debate. That's the trouble with liberal canards. You have to pull them out by the roots when they're young, otherwise they spread all over, crowding out everything else until they become accepted as actual facts. The canard I'm talking about is this idea that Attorney General John Ashcroft is some sort of McCarthyite. Recall, if you will, a few weeks ago the Senate Judiciary Committee invited the attorney general to explain himself. It was billed in advance as a major confrontation between John Ashcroft and Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and his gaggle of "deeply concerned" Democrats. They were going to hold Ashcroft's feet to the fire on what Leahy considered ominous "Orwellian intrusions" by the Department of Justice into the realm of civil rights. The hearing, by all accounts, turned out to be a complete rout, with the Democrats folding faster than Superman on laundry day (to borrow a line from Bart Simpson). Even David Corn of the hard-left (and anti-Ashcroft) magazine The Nation dubbed the hearings more "fizzle than sizzle." Immediately, "Democratic aides were shrugging shoulders and apologetically explaining to journalists why the hearing had fallen flat," Corn wrote. "Not only had he survived a much-touted confrontation with the committee, he had fared well," Corn conceded. The Wall Street Journal was, of course, more generous, calling it the biggest victory Republicans had in a hearing room in more than a decade. Well, if Ashcroft did so well, how is it that there's this growing consensus that he's a McCarthyite? Well, because of one passage that his critics usually misquote or don't quote at all. Ashcroft said: "We need honest, reasoned debate; not fear-mongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists -- for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil." Perhaps it's a sign that many of the administration's critics weren't that serious in the first place that this passage, and only this passage, now forms the backbone of the anti-Ashcroft brigades. Gone are the shrieks from the likes of Bill Safire that the president is assuming "dictatorial powers" or the equally baseless accusation that the FBI is rounding up Arab-Americans much the same way the Army rounded up the Japanese during World War II. Instead, Ashcroft's critics have traded these objectively disprovable falsehoods for inherently unprovable impressions. "As I watched Mr. Ashcroft testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week," wrote The New York Times' Bob Herbert, "I experienced the disturbing sense of a 21st century official morphing alternately into J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy." So now hallucinations pass as arguments? In reaction to Ashcroft's comments, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "I hope we don't go there. ... It's preposterous to use that kind of terminology, period." The New Republic continues the pile-on weeks after the hearings. They claim that Ashcroft's comments were particularly "despicable," because -- as they suggest in this week's issue and state outright on the Web site -- Ashcroft was a "draft dodger." Their case that the AG dodged the draft (a crime) is a stretch. He got deferments to teach school, make of that what you will. But after a hop and skip through some egregious logic, the editors of The New Republic write, "At least, those people Ashcroft now brands traitors have the courage to voice their dissent." So now Ashcroft is calling people "traitors"? Go back and read what he actually said. Saying people shouldn't lie and distort the truth is hardly McCarthyism. He didn't say anyone who questions the government is wrong, let a long a traitor. Nowhere did Ashcroft suggest that even the most irresponsible fear-mongers (such as the hysterics at the Village Voice) were intentionally aiding terrorists. He simply said that people who are fabricating scenarios that don't exist aren't helping us fight the war on terrorism. I think Ashcroft's statements fit William Safire to a T. But I don't for a moment think Safire is sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. Look at it this way, in World War Two the government told people not to waste fuel because to do so would in effect help the enemy. Were the people who left the living room lights on "traitors"? Of course not, and it would be the height of stupidity to think that's what the government meant. According to Ashcroft's opponents, you can say anything -- anything! -- about what the government is doing and it would be McCarthyistic for Ashcroft to say, "You're only helping the terrorists." Well, such stupidity only helps the terrorists.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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