Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei 5762
As one friend of mine said, "I was a civil libertarian before this war, and I'll be one again when it's over."
In the meantime, he said, we have to put our emphasis on national defense.
That's understandable, I agreed, but what are we defending?
In other words, to paraphrase an old Vietnam-era quote, do we have to destroy civil liberties in order to save them?
The question comes up in one form or another during every major war. Sometimes the answer falls short of our best ideals.
Abraham Lincoln, despite his reputation as a champion of liberty, suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War, a move later overturned by the Supreme Court.
More than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were rounded up during World War II. Thousands of Italian-Americans and German-Americans also were restricted in their movements because of their ancestry.
With that sort of history in mind, it is refreshing and encouraging to hear President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft declare repeatedly that this is a war against "terrorism, not against Arabs or Muslims."
After all, they point out, the patriotism and productivity of most Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans is beyond question.
It is also encouraging to hear both men decry discrimination against Arab- and Muslim-Americans and call for such hate crimes against them to be aggressively prosecuted.
Nevertheless, you don't have to be a starry-eyed civil libertarian to look warily upon the administration's sudden urge to rewrite federal limits on wiretapping, surveillance and detention.
It is not every day, for example, that you see a strong conservative like Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., and a strong liberal like Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., on the same side.
Yet, they and many others across the political spectrum wonder: How do we give our anti-espionage and counterterrorism agencies the tools they need while preserving civil liberties?
As one usually strong civil libertarian, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, said, "This is a tougher area for us to look at than areas that involve money."
How bad is it? Well, from a civil liberties standpoint, the Bush administration could be a lot worse.
Among its major proposals, for example, is a much-needed streamlining and updating of present wiretap laws to accommodate the new age of e-mail, pagers, cell phones and the Internet.
Under Ashcroft's proposals, investigators could obtain wiretap and electronic eavesdropping authorization targeted at a person, not just a particular telephone, as existing law demands. The authorization would be valid anywhere in the United States for up to a year, making it harder for targets to elude surveillance by changing phones, locations or methods of communication.
Investigators also could seize unopened voice mail and e-mail messages with just a search warrant, not a court order. Such changes make a lot of sense. Investigations should not be thwarted for mere technological reasons. Nor should it be easier to bust someone for drugs than for illegal possession of chemical or biological weapons.
At the same time, Congress needs to make sure it is only changing the procedures, not the basic standards by which investigators must justify such surveillance.
The bill also would lift limits on the detention of illegal immigrants who are being held in deportation proceedings. Since most of these suspects already have been found to have broken laws, even if only immigration laws, the administration argues that the government has the right to hold them.
Unfortunately, cases already are turning up in the media of otherwise law-abiding Arab students and professionals being rounded up and detained for the sort of minor immigration violations that used to be handled by a postcard or phone call.
At least we are not yet seeing the sort of wholesale roundup of all young Arab males that was ordered in "The Siege," a late-1990s movie inspired by the first World Trade Center bombing.
In that popcorn thriller starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening and Bruce Willis, New York City is terrorized by Arab suicide bombers. The president declares martial law and sends in the Army, let by a general played by Bruce Willis, who rounds up the city's young Arab men - including the son of an FBI counterterrorism agent.
Ah, yes, you can't be too careful.
In that movie, as in real life, it is remarkably simple for non-Arabs or non-Muslims to ignore threats to freedom that only threaten somebody else.
People on the right didn't make a lot of noise when the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, practiced not only eavesdropping but covert action against Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s.
People on the left didn't raise much of a peep when the Clinton White House took a sudden interest in the FBI files of Republicans.
But stick around. This war is just
09/28/01: Life, love and cell phones during wartime