Attorney General John Ashcroft certainly told us off. He played to the crowd shamefully Dec. 6 with his declaration at a Senate Judiciary Committee that critics of the Bush administration's move to limit civil liberties for foreigners "only aid terrorists [and] give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil."
The nation's editorialists are finally taking a hard look at the man Missourians tried to return to private practice last year and the reviews of Ashcroft's performance are not kind. The Sacramento Bee on Dec. 8 had the right word for Ashcroft's attitude: "contemptible." The Des Moines Register, in a Dec. 8 editorial, called "Shame on Ashcroft," used the same word, and added, "Ashcroft is dead wrong, besides. Nothing would give more aid and comfort to the enemies of America's freedoms -- such as the freedom to criticize the government -- than for the government to succeed in silencing its critics. That has not worked here since the demise of the Alien and Sedition Acts 200 years ago." The Register editorialized that it was too bad nobody had the sense of outrage to condemn Ashcroft in the tone of Joseph Welch's immortal put down of Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?"
The Bush administration tells the public that civil liberties are only being set aside to stop foreign-born terrorists. That may sound reasonable to those of us who are not practiced in the ways of police and the courts. In fact, legal scholars suggest that the Constitution, in securing our civil rights, does not distinguish between citizens and foreigners. So if we allow an executive order today to set up kangaroo courts for aliens who are believed to aid terrorists, another executive order tomorrow can order kangaroo courts for citizens who criticize the government.
If you believe that civil rights are expendable, check out the experience of Britain, where special courts were set up in the 1970s under the Prevention of Terrorism Act to try people suspected of ties with the Irish Republican Army, which was then engaged in a bombing campaign in England. The law allowed police to hold suspects for seven days without charging them and without providing them access to a lawyer or a magistrate. It also allowed the use of confidential informants and unsubstantiated evidence, as well as the use of beatings, threats and deprivation of sleep and food to coerce confessions.
In The Name of the Father, a movie released in 1993, depicted the true story of three men and a woman who were wrongfully convicted in October 1975 of participating in the bombing of pubs in Guildford, England. Each of the "Guildford Four" were sentenced to life in prison, based on coerced confessions that were inconsistent with actual evidence in the bombings. Six friends and relatives were imprisoned as accomplices. Even after IRA members confessed to the bombings, the "Guildford Four" remained in prison for 15 years before a defense lawyer accidentally discovered secret police files that proved the innocence of Gerry Conlon, one of the "Guildford Four." The disclosures caused the other "confessions" to unravel. They finally were released in October 1989. By that time Conlon's father had died in prison. (See www.justicedenied.org/inthenameofthefather.htm.)
The draconian laws that were abused by British police did not stop the IRA. In fact, the miscarriages of justice in the cases of the Guildford Four and other frameups provided a potent recruiting tool for the IRA. Abandonment of the Bill of Rights in an effort to stretch the rules to convict foreign nationals in kangaroo courts will only undermine confidence in the rule of law in the United States and help our enemies recruit new terrorists.
The rule of law is hard enough to maintain, even in courts in which the Bill of Rights is supposed to pertain. Police and prosecutors in the United States have been found to suppress evidence that would have cleared defendants in capital murder cases. In Illinois, exposure of police and prosecutorial misconduct contributed to a moratorium on the death penalty. In Texas, unfortunately, exposure of similar abuses by prosecutors did not trouble then-Gov. George W. Bush, who vetoed a bill to provide competent defense counsel to poor defendants. Oklahoma is re-examining hundreds of cases, including death penalty cases, where a forensic analyst is suspected of fabricating evidence. Still, now-President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft want to relax the accountability of police and the courts and streamline the route to the death chamber.
It appears as if Ashcroft only believes in one of the sections in the Bill of Rights -- the Second Amendment, as he refused to let the FBI use a law enforcement firearms database to see if any of the 1,200 or so Arabs detained in the post-Sept. 11 dragnet had ever purchased a gun. We think the Second Amendment is important, too. But what in Ashcroft's mind makes it better than the other nine?
Ashcroft and Bush may still have the crowd behind them, but as time goes on their bullying may backfire. When the people get the truth, they'll recognize the threat to their rights. The ultimate victory of truth is perhaps less certain when the same people who control the Republican Party control the mainstream media. Our job in the independent press is to get the truth out to as wide a circle as we can manage. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, if this be treason, let us make the most of it.
In the new year, while we keep holding our officials accountable, like good Americans are supposed to do, progressive populists also can urge congressional candidates to support the Fairness Agenda for America, a project of the Progressive Challenge (see www.ips-dc.org). It includes the following points:
* Fairness Budget for America. Use America's abundant resources to build a decent society. Cut military spending and corporate giveaways and reinstate progressive taxation. Redirect revenues to invest in human resources, such as schools and health clinics, and in infrastructure, such as mass transit.
* Jobs, Living Wages, Benefits & Worker Rights for All. We endorse government job creation in areas of high unemployment, laws requiring profitable companies to compensate workers and communities affected by job cuts, elimination of tax breaks for companies that provide excessive executive compensation and stronger protections against labor rights violations and all forms of discrimination.
* Equality for All. Address wage gaps by sex and race. Two means of addressing these problems include sufficient funding for agencies that administer anti-discrimination laws and reinforcing affirmative action, while exploring the integration of class-based criteria into such programs.
* Just and Sustainable Global Economy. Free trade agreements and World Bank/IMF programs have increased inequalities at home and abroad. Develop an alternative trade and development initiative that encompasses the protection of worker and women's rights, environmental standards, and food security, and tackles the immigration and the need to reduce inequalities.
* Sustainable Communities & Environmental Justice. Distribute Federal funds, especially to poor communities; revise trade agreements to allow communities to enact strong environmental and labor laws; and retarget Federal insurance, subsidies and loans for community development. Promote the right to a clean environment and replace subsidies for polluters with subsidies for ecologically sound products and services.
* Social Investment. Preserve Social Security and protect it from privatization; remake economic security structures to address the needs of the poor; expand Medicare eligibility to people of all ages and income; create a bill of rights for health care consumers; increase funds for low-income housing assistance; and provide adequate funds for quality public education.
* Get Private Money out of Politics. Support "Clean Money" initiatives to voluntarily limit campaign spending in return for public financing of campaigns. (We would finance campaigns with a tax on broadcast commercials.) In the meantime, we support the McCain-Feingold bill, now stuck in the House, to restrict the use of "soft money." Tell your Rep to get it moving. -- JMC