December 5, 2001
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 all.
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 civilians.
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.