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 menace.
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,
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 rights.
Ashcroft hopes to use his
self-made "enemy combatant" stamp for any citizen whom he deems to be part
of a wider terrorist conspiracy.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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.