Jewish World Review June 17, 2002/ 7 Tamuz, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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When fear attempts
to take a shortcut | OAKLAND, Calif. Fear, though not necessarily good, can be legitimately useful. You could ask George W. Bush. He harnessed fear in the wake of September 11 to unite the nation in the way it had not been united in decades, perhaps not since that other date that will live in infamy.

Sometimes fear, though useful, is not necessarily legitimate. You could ask the security mavens, Lilliputians nearly all, who are determined to tie America down, like Gulliver.

Nearly everyone is scared, the security freaks most of all, closing streets and airports, erecting barriers, briskly frisking elderly women on the chance they may be bearded Saudi terrorists, and generally using the slightest pretense to reorder America along the lines of Havana and Pyongyang, where there is no terror because nobody can move without a cop's permission.

A vignette at Los Angeles International Airport illustrates the fear, and how the fearful can make bad worse. A ticket agent at Southwest Airlines, usually the most efficient and unflappable of all the carriers, sees a carry-on bag that he imagines is "unwatched." He demands to know whose it is. A man in a neat jacket and tie, standing five feet away waiting to get his ticket punched, raises his hand.

"You can't leave this bag unattended," the agent cries, raising his voice. The passenger demurs: "I've kept my eye on it."

Not good enough. Soon another Southwest agent appears, to join in berating the passenger. He flashes what appears to be a badge. When the passenger asks to read the identification, he quickly puts it back into his pocket. "We can close this airport down for three hours," he says. "We have done it."

Later, the ticket agent identifies the security man as "Willie," surname unknown. Why the hostile and confrontational attitude when manners and courtesy might work as well, or better? "Willie doesn't handle things well," the ticket agent says.

But it's not just at airports. The fearful may even include the president, and, taking them at their word, the fearful certainly include the president's men. The vice president says another attack on the United States is "almost certain." Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, says suicide bombings, like those inflicted by the Palestinians on Israel, are "inevitable." Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense and ordinarily the reassuring gray eminence of the administration, says terrorists "inevitably will get their hands" on weapons of mass destruction -they could be chemical, they could be biological or they could be nuclear. (Congress, which can be frightened by mice and lives permanently on the verge of hysteria, showed signs late in the week of asking a few tentative questions.)

The sensation of this week, the arrest of Jose Padilla, aka Abdullah al-Muhajir, has so far yielded not only fear, but the whiff of something that Democrats (and others) say smells like politics. This in turn has led to more fear, this time within the Bush administration, that the timing of the arrest and the curious way it was announced from Moscow will lead the public to regard the arrest as "politics." Ari Fleischer, who once famously warned pesky critics of the administration to "watch what you say," warned this time that anyone who raises questions about the Padilla arrest represents "the most cynical among the most partisan, and they're not to be taken seriously."

Cynical and partisan or not, the questions have been raised, and not just by cynics and partisans. One government official tells the New York Times that the government is "basically playing with time" because it can't figure out what to charge the suspect with; the implication is that the government never can.

There's no reason to doubt President Bush's assertion that Jose Padilla aka Abdullah al-Muhajir is "a bad guy," and what a Justice Department official calls "a very hard case." But so far there's nothing in the statutes against being "a bad guy." The assertion by his lawyer that "my client is a citizen" so far seems unanswerable, and that he has constitutional rights, the right to a lawyer and the right to know what the charge is against him.

The Constitution, as the fearful constantly remind us, is not a suicide pact. But neither is it a mere handbill, to be tossed away at the slightest inconvenience to the government's lawyers. Cutting corners no doubt makes the job easier for the government, but making the government's job easier is rarely a priority.

Preserving the Constitution, fighting off the nibblers and chippers, even nibblers and chippers with good intentions, was once regarded by conservatives as the first duty of the citizen. It still is. We can imagine what conservatives would think of shortcuts through the Constitution if they had been attempted by a certain president from Arkansas. Fear, legitimate or not, is no better excuse than convenience.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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