Camps for citizens: Ashcroft's
Posted on Wednesday, August 14 @ 09:51:36 EDT
Attorney general shows himself as a menace to liberty.
By Jonathan Turley, Los
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's announced
desire for camps for U.S. citizens he deems to be "enemy combatants" has
moved him from merely being a political embarrassment to being a constitutional
Ashcroft's plan, disclosed last week
but little publicized, would allow him to order the indefinite incarceration
of U.S. citizens and summarily strip them of their constitutional rights
and access to the courts by declaring them enemy combatants.
The proposed camp plan should trigger
immediate congressional hearings and reconsideration of Ashcroft's fitness
for this important office. Whereas Al Qaeda is a threat to the lives of
our citizens, Ashcroft has become a clear and present threat to our liberties.
The camp plan was forged at an optimistic
time for Ashcroft's small inner circle, which has been carefully watching
two test cases to see whether this vision could become a reality. The cases
of Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi will determine whether U.S. citizens
can be held without charges and subject to the arbitrary and unchecked authority
of the government.
Hamdi has been held without charge
even though the facts of his case are virtually identical to those in the
case of John Walker Lindh. Both Hamdi and Lindh were captured in Afghanistan
as foot soldiers in Taliban units. Yet Lindh was given a lawyer and a trial,
while Hamdi rots in a floating Navy brig in Norfolk, Va.
This week, the government refused to
comply with a federal judge who ordered that he be given the underlying
evidence justifying Hamdi's treatment. The Justice Department has insisted
that the judge must simply accept its declaration and cannot interfere with
the president's absolute authority in "a time of war."
In Padilla's case, Ashcroft initially
claimed that the arrest stopped a plan to detonate a radioactive bomb in
New York or Washington, D.C. The administration later issued an embarrassing
correction that there was no evidence Padilla was on such a mission. What
is clear is that Padilla is an American citizen and was arrested in the
United States--two facts that should trigger the full application of constitutional
Ashcroft hopes to use his self-made
"enemy combatant" stamp for any citizen whom he deems to be part of a wider
Perhaps because of his discredited
claims of preventing radiological terrorism, aides have indicated that a
"high-level committee" will recommend which citizens are to be stripped of
their constitutional rights and sent to Ashcroft's new camps.
Few would have imagined any attorney
general seeking to reestablish such camps for citizens. Of course, Ashcroft
is not considering camps on the order of the internment camps used to incarcerate
Japanese American citizens in World War II. But he can be credited only
with thinking smaller; we have learned from painful experience that unchecked
authority, once tasted, easily becomes insatiable.
We are only now getting a full vision
of Ashcroft's America. Some of his predecessors dreamed of creating a great
society or a nation unfettered by racism. Ashcroft seems to dream of a country
secured from itself, neatly contained and controlled by his judgment of loyalty.
For more than 200 years, security and
liberty have been viewed as coexistent values. Ashcroft and his aides appear
to view this relationship as lineal, where security must precede liberty.
Since the nation will never be entirely
safe from terrorism, liberty has become a mere rhetorical justification for
Ashcroft is a catalyst for constitutional
devolution, encouraging citizens to accept autocratic rule as their only
way of avoiding massive terrorist attacks.
His greatest problem has been preserving
a level of panic and fear that would induce a free people to surrender the
rights so dearly won by their ancestors.
In "A Man for All Seasons," Sir Thomas
More was confronted by a young lawyer, Will Roper, who sought his daughter's
hand. Roper proclaimed that he would cut down every law in England to get
after the devil.
More's response seems almost tailored
for Ashcroft: "And when the last law was down and the devil turned round
on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? ... This country's
planted thick with laws from coast to coast ... and if you cut them down--and
you are just the man to do it--do you really think you could stand upright
in the winds that would blow then?"
Every generation has had Ropers and
Ashcrofts who view our laws and traditions as mere obstructions rather than
protections in times of peril. But before we allow Ashcroft to denude our
own constitutional landscape, we must take a stand and have the courage
to say, "Enough."
Every generation has its test of principle
in which people of good faith can no longer remain silent in the face of
authoritarian ambition. If we cannot join together to fight the abomination
of American camps, we have already lost what we are defending.
Jonathan Turley is a professor of constitutional law at George Washington
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times
Reprinted from The Los Angeles Times: