Was the cost of catching the sniper too high?

Posted: Oct 29, 2002 12:00 AM
While residents of the Washington, D.C., suburbs relax again, civil libertarians should begin another round of hand-wringing. Because, by the logic they apply to the war on terrorism, the hunt for the Beltway killers represented a dangerous encroachment on our rights. There was, for instance, that telephone tip line. It produced 70,000 calls -- and who knows what false leads casting suspicion on innocent members of communities all across the nation. You might say that these calls were a necessary, common-sensical measure to prevent more murders. But then you wouldn't be a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. One of the ACLU's most successful fights in its war against the war on terror was smearing, earlier this year, the administration's proposed TIPS program -- essentially a toll-free number to encourage truckers, deliverymen and the like to report any suspicious behavior on their routes. This was characterized as a system that would "make Josef Stalin proud." No such hyperbolic attacks were made about the sniper tip line for one reason: It was associated with Montgomery County police Chief Charles Moose rather than Attorney General John Ashcroft, the target of choice for Bush administration critics. (The tipster who phoned in the location of John Muhammad's truck was, by the way, a trucker.) Then there were the efforts to "profile" the killer. These guesses at his demographic characteristics turned out to be hokum, but no one argued at the time that trying to identify, and then act on, the ethnicity of the shooter was inherently discriminatory. The civil-liberties crowd didn't scream at the cosmic unfairness of it all; no doubt, because this process invariably fingered an angry white male. White male gun collectors apparently can't be "victimized" by profiling -- only young Arab males can. Of course, the "profiling" involved is completely different. The sniper profiling was largely based on talking-head blather, while the profiling of young Arab men -- especially those from overseas -- is based on Osama bin Laden's repeated promises to send such men here to murder us. Finally, there were the sweeping highway lockdowns that, by a zealous civil libertarian's lights, should have constituted rolling violations of the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches. Imagine the individual lives disrupted in these highway blockades, just by virtue of someone being on the same highway, or even near the same highway, where a sniper shooting might have taken place. It makes the Bush administration's roundup of Arab aliens in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that prompted such howls look narrowly targeted in comparison. Now that we know that the sniper was a Muslim partly motivated by his anger at America, the ACLU might want to go back and retroactively make all its usual criticisms of the police work that captured him. That would be a disreputable way to operate, but not surprising. Sept. 11 and its aftermath have proven, as much as the folly of Middle East peace-process fetishists, the sheer bankruptcy of this country's civil libertarians. The balance of their case against the war on terrorism is that it is a travesty to detain people for violating U.S. immigration laws. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service detained 763 illegals as persons "of special interest" to the 9/11 investigation. About 30 of them -- again, all violators of immigration laws -- are still detained. Thirty. The other dire threat to our liberties is that two American citizens -- count them: one, two -- are being held as enemy combatants. One of them was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan with an AK-47; the other received al-Qaida weapons training. But the ACLU can take some comfort. Its principles at least were honored a year ago when Muhammad's accomplice, Lee Malvo, was briefly detained for his immigration violations, then released. When will the rest of us learn? Getting murdered by immigration violators is simply the price of living in a free society.