Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to visit with some of my more progressive friends in Kansas City, and several alerted me to a rather scary development: U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has become a Nazi – “another Hitler” as one fretfully described our former governor and senator.

This all came as news to me. Although I do not know Ashcroft personally, I did sit next to him at a dinner just a few years ago, and he exhibited no signs of latent Nazism: no heel-clicking or arm-thrusting, no anti-Semitic slurs or “sieg heils,” no quiet yearnings for the Fatherland. I wondered, too, how a man of such presumed extremes could manage to win five statewide races in America’s most indicative state.

Still, I could not just dismiss those alarms. At least, three of my friendly Cassandras were prominent Missourians. Perhaps they knew something I did not. To test their suspicions, I did a quick online search and got a jolt of confirmation. Some 18,400 web postings link “Ashcroft” and “Nazi,” at least two-thirds of which accuse Ashcroft of being a Nazi.

“Americans have every right to be up in arms against John and his Patriot Act,” reads a typical online jeremiad. “Many of us have been warning that it is a deadly assault on constitutional rights – part of the broad fascistic pattern of the Bush junta.”

Another blames Congress for letting “Ashcroft walk all over the Constitution without stirring from their somnambulance as he and his gang of nazi-fascists began implementing Patriot II.” One site serves as an unofficial Ashcroft songbook. It posts the lyrics of more than 70 songs, all of which alert the innocent to the suspected reign of terror at Justice. Indeed, it must have taken an act of deep courage to pen a ditty like “The Obnoxious Right Wing Nazi Pig Dog From Missouri” (sung to tune of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”) knowing that the aforementioned “pig dog” was creating “Dachaus” for his political opponents.

I could not write off these suspicions as mere Internet blather. On one even more damning site, America’s “most trusted man,” the still-living Walter Cronkite, denounced Ashcroft as the “Torquemada of American law.” Torquemada was the proto-fascist responsible, according to Cronkite, for the unholy methods of the Spanish Inquisition, “including torture and the burning of heretics – Muslims in particular.” Egads! No wonder my friends were upset.

To be fair, progressives do not upset easily. During World War I, the Espionage and Sedition Acts allowed Woodrow Wilson’s progressive administration to prosecute those reckless enough to voice anti-war sentiments. Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs spent 10 years in prison as a result. He was one of 2,000 so prosecuted. During World War II, the always progressive FDR interned – by executive order – 120,000 ethnic Japanese with the full-throated support of the American Civil Liberties Union. The even more progressive Eleanor wanted to draft the entire nation.

My progressive friends uphold that finely tuned tradition of situational libertarianism even today. Although sensitive to civil rights, they are hardly squeamish about them. When, for instance, Ashcroft’s predecessor as attorney general, Janet Reno, launched a tank assault on a religious community outside of Waco, killing 80 people – more than half of them minorities, 20 of them children – my friends kept silent. They understand that governments sometimes have to break a few eggs to sustain the omelet of orderly government. Ditto when Reno sent her troopers to liberate Elian at gunpoint from his Miami family and send him back to Cuba where, unlike America, no little boy goes without health coverage.

Closer to home, my friends prudently held their tongues when Missouri’s Democrat Attorney General Jay Nixon imprisoned 15 so-called “paper terrorists” in the late ’90s for conspiring to place a lien on the house of a state judge. Seven years in a state penitentiary may seem a little tough for a lien that was immediately expunged, but our local progressives understood that a line had to be drawn before these terrorists moved from paper to some more durable substance.

Given their historically measured response to issues of national security, I had to take my friends’ outsized anxieties about John Ashcroft seriously. So I decided to do a little investigating. How, I wondered, had Ashcroft managed to impose a law as frightening as the USA-Patriot Act on the American people? Attorneys general, I reasoned, are supposed to follow the law, not make it.

Here is where things got sticky. It seems that Ashcroft did not exactly make the law. Nor did Bush issue the Patriot Act as an executive order. As it happens, in October 2001 Sens. Clinton, Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, Kennedy and 93 of their colleagues resoundingly passed the Patriot Act through the Senate and into the law books for Ashcroft to enforce. The final Senate count, in fact, was 98 to 1.

I also learned that the federal courts, even the liberal ones, have in almost every case supported Ashcroft’s interpretation of the anti-terrorism policy he was enforcing. Were the courts also part of this fascist junta, I wondered? As to the most subversive of Ashcroft’s tools, the library-snooping Section 215, this section of the act does not even mention libraries and has never been invoked in any case.

One other detail confused me. From what I learned in my investigation, Nazis are “National Socialists,” big-government statists with a fondness for eugenics, vegetarianism, leather, and the homoerotic trappings of Germany’s pagan past. What the Nazis did not much cotton to were smoking, gun ownership and people of faith – Christians as well as Jews

In checking Ashcroft’s senate record, however, I discovered that the American Conservative Union had awarded him a 98 percent rating. The rating acknowledged Ashcroft’s consistent votes in support of small, decentralized government, gun rights, America’s Judaeo-Christian traditions, Israel, “life” in all its manifestations and even big tobacco.

Something wasn’t clicking here. In inquiring more deeply, I learned that his opponents had begun to label Ashcroft a “Nazi” even before Sept. 11, indeed even before he was confirmed as attorney general. The one scribe who had warned of another Dachau wrote tellingly, “We tried to stop this religious fanatic fundamentalist from ever getting the job.”

Walter Cronkite was only slightly more circumspect. “What makes this administration’s legal bloodthirstiness particularly alarming,” he writes in his denunciation of Ashcroft, “is the almost religious zeal that seems to drive it.” Even the composer of “The Obnoxious Right Wing Nazi Pig Dog From Missouri” penned his immortal lyrics before 9-11, due largely to Ashcroft’s unapologetic Christianity and the lyricist’s phobia about the same.

The celebrated wordsmith Jesse Jackson helped me understand progressive logic as it applies to a traditional Christian like Ashcroft. “In South Africa, we call it apartheid,” warns Jackson. “In Nazi Germany, we’d call it fascism. Here in the United States, we call it conservatism.”

As I learned, the equation between such diametrically opposed philosophies as conservatism and Nazism has a specific provenance. Before Pearl Harbor American conservatives generally opposed American entry into World War II. So did America’s communists. At the time, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies. As brutal totalitarian states they had a lot in common, including their respective halves of Poland.

In May 1941, however, Nazi Germany turned on the Soviet Union, and the sophisticated Soviet propaganda machine turned on America’s conservatives. From the Soviet perspective, anyone who continued to resist America’s entry into the war had to be a fascist, and so was born the “brown smear.”

As I began to see, the smear has outlived the Soviet Union and continues to mutate. Contemporary progressives now consciously extend it to serious Christianity. Through relentless media propaganda they have made a direct connection – in their own minds at least – from Adolf Hitler to “the Church Lady” and are now busy scaring themselves with their own mindless stereotypes.

That’s a shame. No administration in world history has handled an internal threat of this magnitude with so much respect for civil liberties. No one has even come close. Hell, even Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.

The Patriot Act and its offshoots are far from perfect, but at least Ashcroft is using the laws he has been handed against real terrorists, not “paper” ones. He does not deserve such absurd abuse, especially from people who would have scrapped the whole dang Constitution had the perpetrators of Sept. 11 worshipped the same God as John Ashcroft.

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