Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Don't trash liberty to save it -- SINCE the world was changed by recent terrorist attacks, many minds have changed on the meaning of freedom and liberty.

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 beginning.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


09/28/01: Life, love and cell phones during wartime
09/24/01: How to catch an elusive terrorist
09/21/01: The war I was waiting for
09/17/01: When rage turns to hate
09/13/01: Terror attack tests US, let's give right response
09/06/01: U.S. should have stayed and argued
09/04/01: Columbine killer's parents get upclose and personal
08/31/01: Virtual kids? Log me out
08/28/01: Two Africans, one black, one white, same fight
08/23/01: Sharpton for president
08/20/01: Shaking up the rules on keeping secrets
08/16/01: Bush's u-turn on racial goals
08/09/01: Outsider Bubba comes 'in' again
08/06/01: Not ready for 'color-blindness' yet
08/02/01: Immigration timing couldn't be better
07/26/01: Summer of Chandra: An international traveler's perspective
07/17/01: Overthrowing a régime is only the beginning
07/10/01: Big Brother is watching you, fining you
07/05/01: Can blacks be patriotic? Should they be?
06/19/01: Get 'real' about marriage
06/12/01: Amos, Andy and Tony Soprano
06/07/01: Getting tough with the Bush Twins
06/05/01: Bringing marriage back into fashion
05/31/01: "Ken" and "Johnnie": The odd-couple legal team
05/24/01: Sharpton's challenge to Jackson
05/22/01: Test scores equal (a) MERIT? (b) MENACE? (c) ALL OF ABOVE?
05/17/01: Anti-pot politics squeeze the ill
05/15/01: Was Babe Ruth black?
05/10/01: U.N.'s torture caucus slaps Uncle Sam
05/08/01: 'The Sopranos' a reflection of our times
05/03/01: 'Free-fire' zones, then and now
05/01/01: War on drugs misfires against students
04/26/01: Another athlete gets foot-in-mouth disease
04/23/01: 'Slave' boat mystery reveals real tragedy
04/19/01: McVeigh's execution show
04/12/01: Not this time, Jesse
04/05/01: Dubya is DEFINITELY his own man, you fools!
04/02/01: Milking MLK
03/29/01: The candidate who censored himself?
03/22/01: "Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group?"
03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
03/15/01: The census: How much race still matters in the everyday life of America
03/12/01: Jesse is a victim!
03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks

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