Remember the Error of Our Old Ways

The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington immediately plunged the United States into a crisis on two fronts.

The first front was abroad, in Afghanistan, as our military forces sought to strike back at Osama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda force and the despicable Taliban government which harbored them.

The second front has been the effort to reverse the economic recession, which, sharply aggravated by the September 11th attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, has produced both the highest overall and the highest black unemployment rates since the mid-1990s.

Who would have thought that the Bush Administration itself would have provoked the third crisis the country now faces?

That crisis is whether America will continue to be a nation whose government adheres to the Constitution of the United States in the conduct of all its affairs.

This is a question which cannot be affirmatively answered by the “pledges” of government officials to act in our best interests, no matter how sincere they may be. This is a question which can only be affirmatively answered by the American peoples’ continued access to democratic oversight of the government’s conduct. That oversight has been put in jeopardy by the zeal with which at least some in the Bush Administration are attempting to bring to justice those who would harm America.

Make no mistake. I’m all for punishing-as swiftly and as clearly as possible-both those who were in any way responsible for the dastardly September 11th attacks and those who are planning future attacks against our or any other nation. And I understand that during this present crisis, we must accept some limitations on the openness and freedoms we’ve enjoyed.

But Americans should never accept such limitations without question, and several actions and proposals of the Bush Administration raise serious questions.

The most serious is the presidential order Mr. Bush has signed establishing military tribunals to try foreigners charged with terrorism.

This means that foreign nationals accused by the government of such crimes would not be tried in American criminal courts-as those who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 were. Instead, they would be tried by military officers under rules significantly different from those governing civilian criminal trials.

For example, the accused might not be able to choose their own lawyers, hearsay could be admitted as credible evidence, and a defendant could be found guilty even if a third of the military panelists disagree about the verdict.

Finally, the trials themselves could be held outside the U.S. and shrouded in secrecy, conducted without public airing of the government’s or the defendant’s assertions.

Vice President Cheney declared that the terrorists don’t deserve the safeguards of traditional American jurisprudence. “They don’t deserve to be treated as a prisoner of war,” he said. “They don’t deserve the same guarantees and safeguards that would be used for an American citizen going through the normal judicial process.”

The new policy comes even as the government continues to detain with great secrecy an unspecified number of men of Middle Eastern descent and has said that it wants to “question” 5,000 men of Middle Eastern descent who’ve arrived in America within the last two years to determine if they have any information useful to the government’s pursuits of terrorists.

The Vice President’s statement and the government’s action in these instances raise questions of the utmost seriousness:

It is true that under the Constitution foreign nationals do not have the same rights as American citizens. But establishing military tribunals to prosecute them under a veil of secrecy is profoundly worrisome.

Doesn’t the President’s policy not only deprive those to be accused of terrorism of American “guarantees and safeguards,” but also assert implicitly that the conduct of the U.S. Government itself does not have to be bound by the Constitution of the United States?

Supporters of the presidential order and other proposals which curtail certain civil liberties and impose a “guilt-by-association” cloud over people of Arabic descent say our national emergency justifies such actions. The situation, they say, is unprecedented.

Yes, it’s true that the September 11th attacks have pushed us, and the world, into uncharted territory full of insecurity.

But America has faced this crisis of civil liberties before.

During World War II the American government and the majority of the American people, driven by fear and prejudice, chose with no credible evidence at all to consider law-abiding Japanese Americans as “probably guilty of” or “likely to commit” espionage for Japan. Their property was confiscated and more than 110,000-most of whom were American citizens-were imprisoned in concentration camps for the duration of the war.

Lest we re-commit the error of our old ways, Congress, as the peoples’ representatives, must hold hearings on the appropriateness of the curtailment of our freedoms.

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