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Jewish World Review March 11, 2002 / 27 Adar, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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John Ashcroft on comparative religions | A comment by Attorney General John Ashcroft on syndicated columnist Cal Thomas' show (carried by a network of Christian radio stations) has stirred considerable anger, and not only from Muslim and Arab-American groups. On the Nov. 9 broadcast, Ashcroft reportedly told Thomas: "Islam is a religion in which G-d requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which G-d sends his son to die for you."

James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, wrote to President Bush, saying that if Ashcroft "did not make the remarks, he should clarify the situation and repudiate the comments." Otherwise, said Zogby, the attorney general "should publicly apologize and meet with Arab and Muslim-American leaders to discuss measures he should take to make amends to the Muslim community and to all Americans."

And, in a Feb. 13 editorial, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said, "If Ashcroft believes -- on a deeply personal, and usually safely hidden, level -- that all Muslims practice this kind of radicalism that Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 hijackers embrace, he could not only unfairly target hosts of innocent people, he could also steer the hunt for terrorists in thousands of wrong directions ... Although this may not have been Mr. Thomas' intent, he has provided the nation a glimpse of Ashcroft that gives us pause."

Although our views are not always consonant, Cal Thomas and I have been friends for many years and I can attest that he is chronically incapable of spinning. He always tapes his interviews, but this remark by Ashcroft came after Thomas had packed up his tape recorder. Accordingly, Cal read it back to the attorney general and his communications director during the interview in Ashcroft's office. They did not change Ashcroft's language.

The White House later called Thomas and asked if he had that comment on tape. Thomas said he did not, but that he had checked it with Ashcroft when it was made. Thomas then took umbrage when a White House press spokeswoman said: "Our understanding is that Mr. Thomas misquoted Mr. Ashcroft."

Then, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Ralph Boyd said in a letter to James Zogby: "We can assure you that the remarks ... do not accurately reflect the attorney general's views."

That response, says Zogby, is "not a clear repudiation of the remarks," and as those remarks "have circulated on the Web, we have seen an increase in hate mail ... including statements of support for the views attributed to Attorney General Ashcroft." Among them: "Kill The Godless Arabs!" "I wholeheartedly agree with Attorney General Ashcroft. Islam is a nation that is sending murderers throughout the world to kill and maim innocent people."

Zogby emphasizes that the Bush administration and the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division have "done an exemplary job in encouraging Americans to remain united and fight intolerance of any kind. But the words attributed to the attorney general threaten to derail the progress and healing that has begun and could send a signal to some that discrimination against Muslims is OK. We urge the president to deal with this situation."

Thomas has known Ashcroft for many years as a fellow Christian. In that now renowned interview, Thomas assumed that Ashcroft, as a man who has been in public life for many years, knew he would be quoted, including the statement he volunteered after the tape machine had been stopped. "He knew he was talking to a journalist," Thomas told me. Ashcroft is not only a passionate Christian, but he is also clearly devoted to securing this nation from terrorists. But his zeal -- particularly his attack on constitutional rights and liberties in the USA Patriot Act and subsequent unilateral incursions -- reminds me of Justice Louis Brandeis' concern that the "the greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding."

In 1771, Sam Adams wrote in the Boston Gazette: "Power makes men wanton ... It intoxicates the mind; and unless those with whom it is entrusted are carefully watched," such men will not govern the people "according to the known laws of the state."

The attorney general should contemplate the impact of his remarks -- and the effects of some of his actions on our civil liberties.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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