The trouble with Ashcroft

Posted: Dec 20, 2001 12:00 AM
Somebody needs to remind Attorney General John Ashcroft that we are at war against terrorism, not dissent. Though our nation's law enforcement must have broader powers to keep us safe, demonizing those who question certain decisions, as Ashcroft has been doing, is not only un-American, but could threaten the support needed for those efforts. While not reminiscent of Gestapo tactics, some measures enacted or proposed by Ashcroft do little justice to Constitutional principles. But these are different times, and a substantial number of the actions taken are justifiable under the circumstances. In recent weeks, Ashcroft has launched a full frontal assault against critics, most notably in Senate hearings this month. He took square aim at detractors of his policies, declaring that their "tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity." But what Ashcroft apparently doesn't understand is that when civil libertarians, including many conservatives, have complained, they weren't in any way diminishing our unity or resolve to combat terrorism. They were merely questioning some of the steps taken toward achieving that end. Independent minds and debate should not be sacrificial lambs in the war on terrorism. That's not to say, however, that all the recent criticism of Ashcroft has been fair and even-tempered. It hasn't been. The American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups, has spouted so much hot air, even when making legitimate points. Maybe everyone needs to take a deep breath. But both sides also need to be honest about the meaning and consequences of new actions by law enforcement. Ashcroft chastised civil libertarians for "scaring peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty." There are no "phantoms"-liberties have been lost. Then again, maybe some have to be in this era. But let's call a spade a spade. Although he's currently garnering high marks, Ashcroft must realize that popularity can be both fickle and fleeting. His strength is admirable, but he needs to at least attempt to appear above the fray. Hyperbolic rhetoric only serves to undermine the moral authority he needs to maintain public support behind his sometimes tough-to-swallow tactics. Perhaps a good barometer for public opinion trends is late-night comedy. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart recently quipped, "terrorists can't take away what makes us American-our freedom, our liberty, our civil rights. No, only Attorney General John Ashcroft can do that." Having a liberal TV comic poke fun at a Republican is nothing new, but when a staunch conservative like me laughs along, Ashcroft should be worried. And there are a lot of conservatives who are growing concerned. Overall, Ashcroft has been commendable in acting swiftly to head off any possible terrorist threats within our borders. Yet the goodwill he has amassed could begin to be overshadowed by unnecessarily defensive and harsh rhetorical attacks. Ashcroft would also be wise to tone down some of the tactics being employed by the FBI and Department of Justice. He's likely just trying to do what law enforcement tells him is necessary, but he needs to exercise discretion-he's not a potted plant. Law enforcement types have long salivated over the prospect of a truly Orwellian society with an almost omniscient government. Unlike most people who read "1984" and categorize it as a nightmare scenario, the FBI reads it and considers it wishful thinking. There must be a balance drawn between the starkly different world-views of the ACLU and the FBI, and that task ultimately belongs to Ashcroft. Why is it not in the hands of Congress? Because they already gave Ashcroft the keys to the city with the decidedly unbalanced antiterrorism bill. And unless the attorney general goes off the deep end, Congress is unlikely to rein him in. Notwithstanding the war on terrorism, we must carefully weigh the benefit of each sacrificed freedom before surrendering any liberty. To do so is not aiding terrorists in the slightest. It is, however, crucial to maintain as much of our freedom as possible in our new reality. There is historical precedent for expansive liberties in the aftermath of bloodshed here in America. When our constitution was drafted, we were barely four years removed from a long war fought on our own soil, yet our founding fathers sought to enhance our freedoms, not diminish them. These are admittedly different times than back then, but our Constitution has proven remarkably relevant for over 200 years. As long as Ashcroft proceeds with caution in both his words and deeds, he can fulfill his obligation to safeguard both the Constitution and the American people.