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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2002 / 25 Tishrei, 5763

Nat Hentoff

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Misunderstanding American values | In Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," Alice is sternly told by Humpty Dumpty, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

Alice objected: "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Humpty Dumpty corrected her: "The question is, which is the master -- that's all." On Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft, during an interview on National Public Radio with Juan Williams, responded to charges by many Americans concerned with civil liberties that he is violating the Bill of Rights.

"We're not sacrificing civil liberties," said Ashcroft. "We're securing civil liberties." The usually trenchant Williams let that one pass. What would have been illuminating would have been to hear Ashcroft respond to Federal District Judge Robert Doumar, who has before him the case of American citizen Yaser Hamdi, who was taken into custody in Afghanistan and is currently being held in a military brig in Virginia.

"This case appears to be the first in American jurisprudence where an American citizen has been held incommunicado and subjected to an indefinite detention in the continental United States without charges ... and without access to a lawyer," said Judge Doumar, a Ronald Reagan appointee.

Hamdi is being held, the Justice Department said, so that he can be interrogated about any information he may have about terrorists. Judge Doumar asked a Justice Department lawyer, "How long does it take to question a man? A year? Two years? A lifetime? How long?"

All that the man from the Justice Department said in response was: "The present detention is lawful."

This is securing civil liberties?

On the PBS's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Deputy Attorney General Larry Thomson answered a charge that many of the Justice Department's legal proceedings have been held in secret.

"Nothing that we have done has been enacted in secret. Every measure that we have undertaken is out in the open," said Thomson.

On Aug. 26, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit unanimously ruled that the administration has illegally held hundreds of deportation hearings in secret.

Wrote Judge Damon Keith: "The executive branch seeks to uproot people's lives, outside the public eye, and behind a closed door. Democracies die behind closed doors. ... When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation."

On Sept. 8, The Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind., published, for the first time in nearly 20 years, a full-page editorial, Attacks on Liberty. In five long columns, the newspaper charged, "In the name of national security, President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and even Congress have pulled strand after strand out of the constitutional fabric that distinguishes the United States from other nations. "Actions taken over the past year are eerily reminiscent of tyranny portrayed in the most nightmarish works of fiction. The power to demand reading lists from libraries could have been drawn from the pages of Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.' ... The sudden suspension of due process for immigrants rounded up into jails is familiar to readers of Sinclair Lewis' 'It Can't Happen Here.'"

Is the word "tyranny" excessive with regard to Bush and Ashcroft taking liberties with the Constitution? The Journal Gazette's editorial includes this quotation from James Madison in the Federalist Papers No. 47, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many ... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

The editorial also quotes -- with regard to our government's executive branch accumulating more and more powers (shoving aside the separation of powers) -- what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1928:

"The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

I hope the teachers in Fort Wayne open this editorial for discussion and debate in their civics classes, also bringing in the many vigorous assurances by the president, the defense secretary and the attorney general that everything they are doing to protect us is "within the bounds of the Constitution."

These days, it may take some courage for teachers to openly discuss whether we're preserving the actual liberties that we are fighting for against terrorists. The president did say on Sept. 12, 2001: "We will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life or restricting our freedoms."

I'm sure he meant that on Sept. 12, but I wish he would read that editorial in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette as to what's been happening since.

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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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