Jewish World Review Dec. 12, 2001 / 27 Kislev, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

To an anxious friend -- JOHN ASHCROFT needs to calm down.

Some of us have been impressed by the difficult job the attorney general of the United States has been doing in these unprecedented times. But then he was called on to testify at a Senate hearing, and responded by telling his critics, in essence, to zip their lips:

"Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.''

Or as Ring Lardner might have summarized the attorney general's argument: Shut up, he explained.

That's no way to unite the country, or to win friends and influence public opinion.

Because there is no conflict between standing united and voicing different opinions. That is one of the great strengths of America -- in war or peace. Indeed, isn't that one of the reasons we're fighting this war -- in order to defend freedom?

In this country, we're free to express our opinions in the faith that free discussion will lead to right conclusions. That's something else oppressive regimes don't understand. And it's something Americans need to remember, especially an American attorney general.

Who will win the public's support? Those whose words make sense, who rise above partisan politics and address the issues with calm resolve. Those who make their case thoughtfully, deliberately, patiently, seeking to persuade their critics rather than bully them into silence.

Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, has been a model of competence in this regard, and the attorney general needs to show the same patience, candor and tolerance. It won't do to try to out-shout the shouters, to be shriller than the shrill. It only makes them sound reasonable by comparison.

The attorney general, like so many of our leaders, has been under a lot of pressure since Sept. 11. Fighting an enemy who strikes from within, John Ashcroft has had to plug holes everywhere -- in our laws, in our immigration procedures, in our mail, in the coordination between law enforcement agencies, and most of all in our business-as-usual mentality.

But there's no need to shout. The American people understand the necessity for new laws, new safeguards, new procedures. We even understand the necessity for new courts to try suspected terrorists, lest we risk the kind of never-ending legal circus that some of our more spectacular trials have become.

The people have understood, perhaps more quickly then many of our politicians, that we're facing something more than an infraction of the U.S. Criminal Code, that the country is at war -- and a new and especially treacherous form of war at that.

But that doesn't mean we want to silence the critics. We might learn something from them. Which may be one reason the president and commander-in-chief let it be known that military courts were being set up to deal with this clear and all too present danger. So all could offer their counsel and even criticism.

Yet the president is criticized by the Patrick Leahys and Ted Kennedys in the Senate, who want to tell the commander-in-chief how to do his job. Senator Leahy complained that the president hasn't consulted him about these military courts. To which, Orrin Hatch, the senator from Utah, offered this definitive response:

"Three months from now, President Bush could have announced, 'We have captured some terrorists in Afghanistan. We will try them by military tribunal, and here are the procedures for the tribunals that have been established by the secretary of defense.' President Bush did not proceed that way. Instead, he responsibly, in my opinion, announced that he wanted military tribunals to be one option for trying unlawful combatants against this country. ... Since then, the committee, this (Judiciary) committee, the Armed Services Committee, numerous law professors and just about every pundit with a typewriter have each expressed their opinion as to how these procedures should be written. That is consultation.''

And how. And it's how a free country is supposed to consult. This is America, where everybody has a right and often a duty to join the discussion. But that's not enough for Senator Leahy. He not only wants to have his say, he wants to design these courts for the commander-in-chief, and has thoughtfully drawn up the legislation to that effect. "If you had congressional framework, congressional approval,'' he explains, "a lot of the questions that are being asked would stop.''

To which Senator Hatch responded with the polite senatorial equivalent of: Oh yeah? Or as he put it: "We've all seen how cooperative the Congress is with something as mundane and simple as an economic-stimulus package. You can imagine what they'd do with this.''

It sounds as though Senator Leahy and his fellow generals in the Senate want to play the role of the notorious Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War that so bedeviled Abraham Lincoln in the early stages of the Civil War. When that president and commander-in-chief finally rid himself of the committee's meddlesome services, it was sorely missed only by the Confederates.

Critics can irritate, but that's no reason to gag them. The attorney general's broadside makes it seem as if he's trying to stifle arguments he can't answer. Instead, he ought to respond to them, preferably on a higher plane.

In another era, a small-town editor in Kansas, William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette, noted that freedom of discussion is more important than ever when the times are perilous. In an editorial addressed "To an Anxious Friend,'' White wrote:

"You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also; only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital. ... So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold -- by voice, by posted card, by letter, or by press. Reason has never failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.''

No one has said it better. Which may be why the Sage of Emporia remains so relevant. Once again we are fighting unreasoning force, thoughtless repression. Let's not embrace them.

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