by Orwell Thompson
George W. Bush once jokingly said that his job would be a
lot easier if he were dictator of the United States instead
of its president. If the recent "anti-terrorist" measures
being embraced by him and Attorney General John Ashcroft are
any indication, Bush's wish is frighteningly close to becoming
reality. These actions show little faith in the system of
law and justice that set this country apart from the rest
of the world.
Bush has decided that he can't trust the constitutionally
protected court system to prosecute suspected terrorists.
Instead, the president has acted unilaterally to establish
a military tribunal with generals seated as judges whose simple
majority vote would be all that is required to convict. Think
of a fast-food restaurant that dispenses justice. Would you
like fries with that lethal injection?
As a model for success, Bush has held up FDR and his military
trial for eight suspected German spies captured in America
during WWII. They were found guilty, of course, and six of
the eight were executed - not exactly a shining moment in
Roosevelt's tenure. So much for precedent. If it was bad policy
then, it is worse policy now, considering that, unlike FDR,
the U.S. has not formally issued a declaration of war. Ah,
but for Bush, a declaration of war, much like the concept
of a fair trial, is far too trivial a matter to worry about
right now what with all our national security concerns and
According to the president, the secret tribunals would prevent
the circus-like atmosphere, a la O.J. Simpson, which could
result if a terrorist suspect was tried in a traditional court
proceeding. The concept of a military tribunal is so disturbing
it has drawn criticism from some of the most conservative
members of the Republican Party, Georgia congressman Bob Barr
and N.Y. Times columnist William Safire among them. Spain
has refused to extradite eight suspects it has in custody
because of its fear that those prisoners would not receive
a proper hearing in America and could face the death penalty.
Bush, undeterred, wrongly claims that national security,
mainly the safety of those serving on a jury, could be threatened
if information was leaked to the public as evidence. This
is disingenuous. The president desires the tribunals for one
reason: It would be a fail-safe method to assure conviction
of virtually every suspect brought before it. There would
be no messy, time-consuming process that could potentially
expose government missteps that would cause Bush's poll numbers
to dip. There would be no embarrassing acquittals. If the
dictator deemed someone guilty, so be it.
Ashcroft is the Javert of this new tale, endlessly searching
for the brown-skinned Jean Valjean that will vindicate him
in the eyes of the American people and his president. To prove
he is up to the job, the Little General has embarked the Justice
Department on a dragnet that has detained and questioned some
1,200 individuals of Middle Eastern dissent. Half of these
"suspects" have been released with more sure to follow.
In between releasing innocent foreigners, Ashcroft has managed
to find the time throw his fellow conservatives a bone and
thwart the will of the people of Oregon by fouling up that
state's assisted suicide law that had been implemented after
being overwhelmingly approved on a referendum by the voters.
As a wink to the ultra-Christian-right-to-life wing of his
party, Ashcroft has mandated that any doctor who prescribes
medicine for the purpose of suicide would be arrested until
the Supreme Court rules on the matter. This is the same Supreme
Court that handed Dubyah the election. Is there any wonder
which way they'll rule on assisted suicide?
In the meantime, we have anthrax and plenty of it. Relax,
we are told, only five people have died from the poisonous
white powder. The targets of the fatal mailed letters have,
for the most part, been Democratic Party leaders. This has
led experts in Tom Ridge's Homeland Security Team to surmise
that the mad powderer likely is a domestic terrorist.
Ashcroft, curiously enough, has not implemented the same
racial profiling technique in this investigation as he has
done in his quest to track down those responsible for the
Sept. 11 attacks. Evidently, it would take a long time to
round up all the white, Christian, anti-government, anti-abortion
homegrown kooks who fit the profile. Maybe if Pat Robertson
or Jerry Falwell received an anthrax letter, Ashcroft would
be in more of a rush to find the culprit.
The failures of Bush and Ashcroft are disheartening. Americans
were told passing the U.S.A Partiot Act into law was necessary
to combat terrorism. Sure, citizens were concerned about certain
provisions of the law, including the loosening of the wiretapping
restrictions and allowing policing organizations freer access
to personal e-mail. But the president and Ashcroft assured
an uneasy public that the government would not abuse this
expanse in power. That, as we now find out, was a lie.
The conservative media wants the public to believe that it
is wrong and somehow un-American to question the methods of
our government during a time of war. Defeating terrorism shouldn't
require suspending the system of justice that makes United
States stand alone as a model for civil rights. Rush Limbaugh
and those who drive the right-wing propaganda machine pound
the war drum so loudly as to drown out dissent.
These are the same people who rail against government intervention
in medical care for the masses, prescription drugs for seniors
or campaign finance reform, but have no problem with the feds
peeking in on the private conversations and writings of innocent
Secret trials without a judge or jury? Spying on innocents
through phone taps and e-mail snooping? Arresting someone
because of his ethnic background and religious beliefs?
Now that's un-American.