Throwing it all away

National security is not justification for the suppression of human rights.

Published November 21, 2001 8:18PM (EST)

Sadly, the old slander that a liberal is someone who has never been mugged is turning out to be true. The Sept. 11 attacks were so close to the center of the intelligentsia's power and consciousness that they have propelled many civil libertarians to abandon their long-held principles.

Congress passes, without due consideration, a draconian anti-terrorist bill that Attorney General John Ashcroft demands, and only one senator -- Russell Feingold, D-Wis. -- dares to rise in opposition. The president doesn't even bother to consult Congress as he detains more than 1,000 prisoners without charges, approves wiretaps on lawyer-client conversations and issues an executive order implementing military trials for those accused of terrorism.

Secret military tribunals are defended by Harvard's Laurence Tribe, a preeminent liberal law professor, as necessary to "protecting our lives from terrorism." His colleague Alan Dershowitz assures us that the Constitution does not prohibit "torture" and argues that it be kept within the legal system: "If we are to have torture, it should be authorized by the law. Judges should have to issue a 'torture warrant' in each case." With the exception of a few stalwarts, such as the ACLU, we have witnessed the sorry spectacle of most civil libertarians remaining silent or actively supporting the most sweeping and ill-considered assault on civil liberties since the roundup of Japanese Americans during World War II.

For all the horror of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we are still the most powerful nation in the world. We should be able to minimize terrorist danger without shredding our standards of freedom.

One way to do this is to stop being reactive and instead be proactive in the world and at home. If the air marshal program had not been gutted a decade ago for budgetary reasons, the Sept. 11 attacks may likely have been prevented. The nation's air security also was shortchanged by our relying on poorly paid, trained and screened private employees. And if we had made war on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network three years ago, after they took credit for killing Americans and promised to kill more, we might have saved countless lives, here and in Afghanistan.

The war on terrorism, like the war on drugs, is being used to justify the destruction of individual privacy rights. Feingold, in voting against the largely unchallenged USA-PATRIOT Act, the anti-terrorism bill, said: "Under this bill, the government can compel the personal records of anyone -- perhaps someone who works with or lives next door to or went to school with or sat on an airplane with ... the target of the investigation." That's a witch hunt.

After endlessly proselytizing to the world on the virtues of limited government, judicial restraint, due process and the rights of the individual, we now cavalierly, with limited debate and dissent, are willing to throw it all away. The justification is that our security is threatened. Has it never occurred to these summer-soldier civil libertarians that any government can make that claim to justify suppression of human rights?

The human-rights advocates who criticized China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban (when no one cared to hear it) are right: Freedom makes a nation stronger, truth drives out lies, and the free marketplace of ideas is the best defense against despotism.

How we handle this war will form the basis of much of the world's thinking about our seriousness of purpose when we champion the rule of law. Anyone can support freedom for others when they are not under attack. The challenge is to stick to your principles in times of duress.

By Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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