National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 20, 2003

The fog of war lifts

At Home …

In a sometimes blistering critique of his post 9/11 management, the Justice Department’s inspector general recently took John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI to task for locking up hundreds of foreign-born nationals, placing some of them in inhumane conditions and allowing them no access to outsiders, including lawyers.

None of the 700-plus foreign nationals rounded-up on Ashcroft’s orders, the inspector general revealed, was found to have any connection to terrorism. None. They were imprisoned for an average of 80 days, some for more than eight months. (And the inspector general’s report didn’t even discuss those detained as “material witnesses” following the Sept. 11 attack.)

Ashcroft’s response: “Our policy was to use all legal tools available to protect the American people from additional terrorist attacks. The consequences of not doing so could mean life or death.”

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, then fear mongering, it seems, is their penultimate haven.

The implications of Ashcroft’s hysteria-as-policy are increasingly clear. In language sadly reminiscent of Cold War rhetoric designed to stifle debate by charging critics with “coddling communists,” Ashcroft hints that those who disagree with his leadership are soft on terrorists. It’s not the first time. Three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ashcroft told Congress that those who question his approach to civil liberties “only aid terrorists” and “give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends.”

“Give ammunition to America’s enemies”? So the chief law enforcement officer in the nation has warned that opposition to his approach places critics just this side of treason. Ashcroft is not satisfied, apparently, with defending the indefensible. Acting under the theory that the best defense is a good offense, he went before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month and pleaded for additional authority, beyond that granted him in the misnamed USA Patriot Act, to, for example, execute terrorists (how this will deter people who don’t seem to fear death is another question).

The man charged with protecting American civil liberties has become the greatest threat to them.

There are any number of problems with Ashcroft’s approach to fighting terrorism. It’s constitutionally dubious. Can the U.S. government indefinitely imprison anyone (including U.S. citizens) it deems to be an “enemy combatant” in a “war” that Congress has not declared? Ashcroft says yes. Should the FBI have unfettered access to gatherings of religious and political groups? Again, ignoring the lessons learned during the government’s trampling of dissenter liberties in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Ashcroft says yes.

Ashcroft’s battle plan violates basic American ideals of fairness. Most Americans, we believe, would not argue with the idea that those in this country illegally are not entitled to all the rights and privileges of native born or naturalized citizens. Fair enough.

But everyone, no matter the status of his or her visa application or green card, is entitled to basic fairness. And that means you should not be locked away without charge or benefit of counsel, subjected to abuse, your identity unrevealed by your captors. That is, it seems to us, simply un-American.

Ashcroft’s approach is not only heinous; it is ineffective. Cloaked in the rhetoric of saving innocent lives, this over-the-top trampling of liberties threatens domestic tranquility and makes us less safe, not more secure.

Ashcroft’s methods -- secret detentions, deportations and registration requirements targeted to citizens of 25 mostly Muslim countries -- have “alienated a lot of these communities, caused a great deal of fear, and reinforced the tendency of immigrant communities to huddle together and not trust authorities, which works against intelligence gathering by law enforcement, particularly the FBI,” Vincent Cannistraro, former director of Counterterrorism Operations and Analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency, told us earlier this year (NCR, March 28). “The idea that you stigmatize whole classes of people and profile them because you think this is going to prevent the next terrorist attack is exactly the wrong way [to go about it],” said Cannistraro. “There may very well be another clandestine al-Qaeda cell in North America, but none of these methodologies has contributed to identifying them,” Cannistraro said.

Meanwhile, in another ironic twist, the U.S. refugee resettlement program has slowed to a snail’s pace because of terrorist fears. This, despite the fact that nearly all participants in the debate acknowledge that those granted refugee status -- largely political refugees fleeing repressive governments of the kind most likely to condone terrorist actions against the United States -- are among those least likely to threaten Americans with terrorism.

One potential bright spot in this otherwise sad scenario: House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a conservative Republican, and the committee’s ranking member, John Conyers of Michigan, a liberal Democrat, are not Ashcroft lackeys. Conyers is particularly vigilant. He opposed the Patriot Act while authoring the provision requiring an inspector general’s report. Sensenbrenner, if less hostile to Ashcroft, is the type of Republican whose sincere devotion to limited government extends beyond opposition to social welfare programs.

The Patriot Act expires in October 2005. Let us pray that Messrs. Conyers and Sensenbrenner, and their colleagues, have the decency to give its most onerous provisions a decent burial.

… And Abroad

Those who supported the war against Iraq using the principles of just war theory argued that we should redefine the term “imminent threat” -- a necessary condition for a “just war” -- to accommodate the new realities of the 21st century. Under this reasoning, a brutal dictator (or a non-state terrorist) with grand ambitions who possesses the capacity to use weapons of mass destruction is, by definition, an “imminent threat.”

Among those who take Catholic teaching on war seriously, this argument -- if not convincing -- was the most persuasive arrow in the hawk’s quiver. In fact, many war opponents (including this editorial page) argued that the likelihood that Saddam would use chemical or biological weapons against both U.S. troops and Israel soon after a U.S.-led attack on Iraq was launched -- and the ensuing call for holy war and the likely cycle of retribution -- was reason enough to avoid conflict. Better to contain the threat than confront it.

Why didn’t Saddam Hussein use chemical or biological weapons on advancing U.S. troops or Israel? It’s becoming increasingly clear that he didn’t because he couldn’t; it seems he didn’t have them.

The fact that we were repeatedly told otherwise by our leaders -- Saddam’s possession of such weapon’s was the war’s casus belli -- should give us pause.

The truth, it is increasingly clear, is that the fig leaf of weapons of mass destruction was used to frighten and then to rally a reluctant nation. Democracies require open and honest governments. When their leaders lie or intentionally mislead, especially in a matter as vital as war, the very institution of democratic government is threatened. Bush must be held accountable.

So if not weapons of mass destruction, then why the war? Some reduce that answer to oil, and that’s certainly a large part of the equation.

But as significant, perhaps, is the open desire of numerous policymakers in this administration -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz -- and their neoconservative allies in the press and among the pundits -- to remake the face of the Middle East.

According to this analysis, the United States, as the world’s only superpower, simply cannot tolerate a regime like Saddam’s in a key region like the Persian Gulf. The end of removing Saddam justified most any means necessary to secure it, including exaggerating the threat that he posed.

If the administration had offered that argument alone, Congress and the American public would not have supported a war against Iraq. So the Bush team, instead, went the route of scare mongering and gave the nation half-truths, exaggerations and outright lies.

The result: The Bush team had its way. And our nation now finds itself sinking deeper into a quagmire that’s beginning to look like early evening in the long night that was Vietnam.

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 2003

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