Things We Lost in the Fire

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

Civil libertarians, immigrant advocates, and human rights activists frantically sent up warning flares, highlighting various ways the new laws, regulations, and acts of fiat threatened various constitutional protections. "There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state it would be easier to catch terrorists," said Russell Feingold, who braved the only nay vote on the USA Patriot Act in the Senate. "That would not be America."

The Big Chill

Perhaps it wasn't America in those late months of 2001 as a disquieting chill wafted in with the winter wind. During the past year, thousands of immigrants were swept up and disappeared into detention and secret trials; racial profiling turned from an increasingly discredited and offensive means of crime-fighting into a brazen national policy; the military tribunals were established with no public outcry (and two American citizens tagged as "enemy combatants" have been denied a full and fair trial); some officials even called for using torture to get detainees to confess—or at least recommended outsourcing interrogations to countries that aren't so squeamish about applying physical pressure.

If you had a problem with any of that, you were advised to keep it to yourself, as the president's spokesperson Ari Fleischer warned that Americans should "watch what they say." And if anyone dared to point out the totalitarian tone of this remark, or to question government measures that paid little heed to the Bill of Rights, the attorney general had a quick rebuke: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists."

The frost trickled down from government into all areas of civic life—even those most depended upon to keep debate open and vigorous. Newspaper columnists, cartoonists, and an irreverent TV talk-show host were fired for questioning whether the men who slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were actually cowards, or whether the president, who hid out in some cushy compound while the towers crumbled, was genuinely brave. The anti-multi-culti American Council of Trustees and Alumni—with the VP's wife Lynn Cheney and Democratic senator Joseph Lieberman in the forefront—attacked colleges and universities as the "weak link" in America's response to September 11, asserting in an overheated report that "when a nation's intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give comfort to its adversaries" and naming more than 40 professors for uttering such seditious statements as "We need to understand the reasons behind the terrifying hatred directed against the U.S. and find ways to act that will not foment more hatred for generations to come."

At the University of South Florida, Sami Al-Arian, a tenured associate professor of computer science—and a founder of the campus's Islamic studies center—was fired in December for having expressed hotheaded anti-Israel views a dozen years ago. Dredging up the old statements, The O'Reilly Factor and local Florida shock-jocks had recklessly denounced Al-Arian for fomenting jihad under the Tampa palms, and he soon found himself unemployed.

College frosh A.J. Brown opened her door in Durham, North Carolina, one October evening as she was getting ready for a date to find a couple of local secret service officers who had been tipped off about the "un-American" propaganda in her apartment—a poster, it turned out, protesting the record number of executions in Texas under Bush's governorship. Brown told The Progressive magazine that the officers asked whether she had any pro-Taliban material. "No," she replied. "I think the Taliban is just a bunch of assholes." That, apparently, sufficed to show how united Brown stands: after 40 minutes in her apartment, the officers left.

Other outlandish cases of repression and neighborly ratting crept into national consciousness—or at least were splashed across lefty Web sites—as the year wore on: the guy in San Francisco who got a visit from the FBI after he'd questioned Bush's motives for the war in a conversation at his gym; the student teacher in Maine sacked for giving a lesson on Islamic culture in a 10th-grade world history class; the two men in Chicago who were subjected to interrogations by cops and a federal postal inspector because at their local post office, they'd requested stamps that were not emblazoned with the American flag.

Death of Due Process & Flouting the First Amendment

Our attorney general's name doesn't lend itself as readily as Joe McCarthy's to the mellifluous abstract noun that came to define the witch-hunts, loyalty oaths, and blacklisting of the '50s: "Ashcroftism" is not likely to enter American parlance. But if it did, the term would describe not only the climate of enforced conformity, but the administration's high-handed disregard for the most fundamental of constitutional protections: First Amendment rights to free association and free speech and the Fifth Amendment right to due process.

The most egregious breach has been the roundup and "preventive detention" of thousands of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian immigrants under an unprecedented veil of secrecy. (The exact number cannot be known; the government stopped releasing its running tally in November at 1147.) By now the vast majority has been deported or released without yielding any information about or connections to Al Qaeda.

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