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Editor’s note: Reporter Gareth Schweitzer contributed to this column.
Writing last April in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne, Jr. compared President Bush’s tax cut to a frog dropped in a pot of lukewarm water. If the heat is turned up gradually enough, the frog won’t have a clue that in a few minutes, it’s going to wind up on somebody’s dinner plate. By the time the frog realizes he’s the entr?e, it’s too late.
Dionne’s thinking about tax cuts applies double to what this administration has done to our civil liberties. Only this time, it isn’t the frog in the pot, but our sacred Constitutional rights. Since Sept. 11, the kinds of words that used to be coupled in the same sentence with “Third Reich,” “Gulag” and “Pinochet” have actually creeped into the mouths of mainstream talking heads – torture, secret trials, military tribunals and anonymous detentions. Anybody feeling the water temperature rising?
But the Bushies may have miscalculated. Maybe they turned up the temperature too high, too fast. Some in Congress are beginning to wake up and smell the coffee, and what’s in the air isn’t too fresh. They see a growing police state being implemented behind smiling, “Trust-Us” Ashcroft/Ridge press conferences. While people may fear a downward spiral towards brown-shirts and book burnings, the truth is that an American police state may show up in a Brooks Brothers suit with an impressive law degree.
Think about it. In only two months, law enforcement agencies have been granted the authority to wiretap – virtually at will – monitor e-mails, detain suspects without ever having to file a charge or even identify the suspect or, for that matter, even admit they have a suspect. Lawyer-client conversations are open to inspection. Suspected terrorists can be tried, convicted and executed on the say-so of a panel of colonels without anyone even knowing that someone was arrested. And think of the convenience! No messy public appeals unless the president (the colonels’ commander in chief) or the secretary of defense (their immediate boss) says so. This has nothing to do with ideology. This has to do with everybody’s rights. It bothers both liberal Senator Patrick Leahy, D–Vt., and conservative Congressman Bob Barr, R-Ga.
But it only gets worse. Not only does the Bush administration refuse to release information on more than 1,000 people they’ve already rounded up, it is about to take the first step in a campaign everybody swore could never happen again in America – the legal roundup of people based solely on ethnicity. Right now, the FBI has ordered that another 5,000 people of Arab descent be sought for questioning. Never mind that they are perfectly legal immigrants. Does anybody out there like good men’s clothes? Well, the famous men’s designer Joseph Abboud, as good and as loyal an American citizen as they come, has already been contacted many times by the FBI. Today it’s the Arabs. What about tomorrow?
What really galls is how the Bush administration has treated the American people like children. They have not bothered to explain why the system of courts, juries and judges can’t handle the trials of alleged terrorists. Laura W. Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union notes that the United States government has no rival in constantly protesting the use of such “courts” when U.S. citizens are tried abroad. She observes that such kangaroo courts, coupled with eavesdropping on lawyer-client conversations, “demonstrates the government’s increasing willingness to circumvent the requirements of the Bill of Rights.” The hypocrisy only adds to the stench. It will be interesting to see how John Ashcroft dances around these pesky questions of constitutional rights in upcoming congressional hearings.
For the moment, these new regulations won’t affect you, unless you are of Middle Eastern descent. If you are, expect to be hearing soon from the Department of Justice, even if you entered the United States legally. Thanks to these new rules, we are slowly returning to the World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans.
As for the more than 1,000 people already detained since Sept. 11, members of Congress have petitioned the attorney general for more information regarding them. Did the Justice Department deliver what the people’s representatives asked for? Just ask congressman John Conyers, D-Mich. “The attorney general,” he says, “totally ignored my letter of Oct. 31 asking for information regarding the 1,000 plus immigrants who have been detained for undisclosed reasons since the September attacks.”
Water or coffee may not be the right comparison. Maybe it’s smoke. Maybe it’s the smoke of the Reichstag burning.