November 25, 2001

Uncivil Liberties?


A friend of mine, a liberal editor at a magazine, has been trying to get some of his staffers interested in writing about whether the Bush team's anti- terrorism measures are scorching our civil liberties.

It's the sort of topic they'd usually jump at. But not this time.

"As good liberals, we feel we ought to be upset but somehow we're not," my friend mused. "But why not? In part because we were really attacked this time. Before, when the president talked about national security, it was in the abstract. Now, you say, `Oh, this is national security.'

"We're all in this haze of indifference. I don't want to get into it enough to have to make a decision about how bad it is. What if I reached the conclusion that this is all terrible? Would I have to start protesting in the streets? I'm not in the mood for a big civil libertarian crisis."

With supreme ambivalence, we are embarking on the Ashcroft era in American justice. The Economist writes that the attorney general's assault on evil has "a Cromwellian feel," noting dryly: "England's Lord Protector also disapproved of drinking, dancing and smoking."

The evangelical barbershop singer, whose nomination was opposed by every liberal special interest, has now become the big man in town.

It's weird what tricks fate plays. The great hope of the Christian right who was toppled by a dead man and his widow has re-emerged as a colossus bestriding the country.

A true sectarian in religion and politics, who said at Bob Jones University that in America "we have no king but Jesus," will leave a huge mark on the way Americans live their lives.

Mr. Ashcroft's contentious nomination fight was not over whether he had a fine legal mind. Senators fought over whether or not he was too riddled by prejudice and narrowness to serve, as they examined his opposition to a black judicial nominee, a gay ambassadorial nominee, abortion rights and his odd defense of slaveowners and Confederate generals.

Now, stunned by terrorists, abroad and in our midst, the country is seized by contradictory impulses.

On the one hand, we have to trust Mr. Ashcroft. Four thousand people are dead. We are at war with anthrax. There is no question that the attorney general inherited a Justice Department and an F.B.I. that were grossly delinquent on domestic security. The terrorists had been planning the encore attack in New York for at least two years. The F.B.I. has revealed that all 19 hijackers came in legally, and only three of their visas had expired. How does that happen?

But even as we cut the guy some slack, we have to be really skeptical about his assertions of power. It was telling that the first resistance to his edict to interview 5,000 Middle Eastern men came from police chiefs objecting to racial profiling. We're trying to trust someone whose instincts once did not inspire universal trust to rethink the way civil liberties will be treated for a generation.

In the middle of our terrorism war, Mr. Ashcroft did, after all, find time to meddle with the right of the terminally ill in Oregon to take advantage of the state's assisted suicide law.

The A.G. started his job in a polarized capital. A Newsweek cover declared that his ascent had started a new Holy War here, a culture clash between liberals and conservatives.

Before they were startled by a real demon, left-wing groups had planned to demonize Mr. Ashcroft as the Teddy and Hillary of the right, a fund- raising hot-button character.

But now Nadine Strossen, president of the A.C.L.U., is careful to say she does not think the president and attorney general are infringing on civil liberties in a "cynical, `we'll take advantage of this to multiply our powers' " sort of way. But, she says, we still must be on guard when the Bushies simply ask us to trust them.

"People are very concerned, at least in the abstract," she said. "They say they are willing to give up their freedoms for national security if they are getting something in return. But they are not sure they are getting something in return."

Since Sept. 11, the attorney general has discovered that liberals are not a monolith, that one can believe in the A.C.L.U. and national security, that one can want privacy protected and still be a patriot.

If we have to complicate our view of John Ashcroft, then John Ashcroft has to complicate his view of us.

Copyright © 2001 New York Times