Things We Lost in the Fire

While the Ruins of the World Trade Center Smoldered, the Bush Administration Launched an Assault on the Constitution

 "Liberty is the most precious gift we offer our citizens."

Could Tom Ridge have said anything scarier or more telling as he accepted the post of homeland security czar? Trying to strike the bell of liberty, he sounds its death knell, depicting government not as the agent of the people's will, but as an imperious power with the authority to give us our democratic freedoms. Which means, of course, that it can also take them away.

That's exactly what Ashcroft, Bush, Cheney & co. have been up to all year as, in the attorney general's words, the government has marshaled the might of "every available statute" to root out "the terrorists among us." Wrapping themselves in the flag, they have shredded the Constitution. They have sneered at, ignored, or defied the courts and legislatures that are designed to provide checks and balances on uninhibited executive power. They have eroded the precious Bill of Rights protections of free speech, assembly, and association and its assurances of privacy, due process, equal protection, legal counsel, and a fair trial—practically everything but the right to bear arms.

Thanks to these maneuvers in the name of combating terrorism, the government can now freeze the release of public records, monitor political and religious gatherings, and jail Americans indefinitely without trial and with legal representation. As Bush and Cheney ready the country for war against Iraq, they have established a climate that stifles dissent—and put laws in place enabling them to clamp down on those who ask too many questions.

First, They Came for the Immigrants . . .

If you're a citizen—and if you haven't tried to organize any major protests lately—you might easily have missed the rupture. It's the liberties of noncitizens that have been most severely curtailed in the past year. In immigrant communities, the tear feels seismic. Midwood, Brooklyn, home to some 150,000 Pakistanis, saw two planeloads of its young men sent home in August after long detentions by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The annual Pakistani festival days later drew less than half the usual crowd of 80,000, according to Asghar Choudhri, president of the Pakistani-American Federation of New York. "People are too afraid to come out," he explains. "It's like a third-world country here. They come get you, throw you in jail, and you can't say anything." Because he is a U.S. citizen, Choudhri says his neighbors, terrified of lingering too long in public, often ask him to pick up groceries or run other errands for them. Local businesses have been closing in droves.

Polls have shown that at least 40 percent of Americans are willing to give up some civil liberties for the sake of security, but as constitutional lawyer David Cole has pointed out, so far it's not our own freedom we've been sacrificing.

If history is any guide, that could quickly change. From the invoking of the 1798 Enemy Alien Act during the 1941 internment of Japanese American citizens to McCarthy's use of the tools of 1919 Palmer Raids in the witch-hunts of the 1950s, the Feds have repeatedly sharpened their teeth on immigrants before closing their repressive jaws on all dissidents and undesirables. Indeed, many of the post-9-11 provisions swept into place by Ashcroft—such as those for the tracking and eventual punishment of would-be perpetrators of "domestic terrorism"—focus primarily on citizens.

Balanced against security concerns at a time of war, the old dictum holds, civil liberties spring back to full force when danger has passed. In an endless "war on terrorism" that soon might include attacks on Iraq, those springs could get mighty rusty.

Power Grab: Kicking Over Checks and Balances

In the fearful weeks immediately after September 11, Congress and the American people gave the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, supporting a rash of new measures to get to the bottom of the heinous attacks and to protect us from "sleeper" cells hatching plots on our shores, as well as from enemies preparing strikes from afar.

On September 14, Congress quickly passed the Authorization for Use of U.S. Military Force resolution, granting the president carte blanche to wage war against anybody he deemed responsible for the hijackings. And in October, with hardly enough time even to read the 342-page document, much less debate it, lawmakers rushed through sweeping anti-terrorism legislation whose very name and jingoistic acronym—the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (or USA Patriot) Act—made it unassailable. Scores of state and local copycat laws soon followed.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Ashcroft granted himself and the agencies he oversees a spate of new powers. By decree, he suspended attorney-client privilege. Soon after, he unilaterally removed restraints on the FBI that had been put in place after the excesses of the 1960s and '70s, unleashing agents to sniff around community meetings, political gatherings, religious services, and even your e-mail messages and Web site visits, without having any evidence, nor even a good hunch, that anything illegal is afoot.

Not to be outdone, Bush issued a few executive orders of his own. One called into being military tribunals in which "enemy combatants" could be arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death entirely in secret and with no opportunity for judicial review. Another rescinded the planned release of the papers of former presidents, effectively closing the public record.

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