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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Fear, and what's important

As the editor’s note in our cover story says, it is rare that we run speeches. Rarer still, speeches from county-level officials in the Heartland. But Katheryn Shields hit on some themes that we thought important and appropriate to the national moment, and especially relevant since they emanate from Middle America and not from Washington. Her central question is this: What price are we paying for our fear? (See story)

Do extended airport searches and suspension of civil liberties “make you feel safer from the threat of al-Qaeda terrorists? Or is it just supposed to scare you or remind you that you are supposed to be scared?”

The message that we are supposed to be scared is everywhere evident, even in presidential assurances from Mr. Bush that he sees his primary duty as protecting us. President Bush made that point, by the way, several times in a recent speech in Manhattan, Kan., in the neighboring state not far from where I write this.

I don’t know if the president’s prime duty is, as he said, to consistently remind us of the threats we face and to protect the American people. Certainly, that job would fall under the description of the office, under the broad promise he made to “faithfully execute the office of president.” But the only specific duty contained in the oath of office he took was “to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

That’s where the danger seems to lie today. Al-Qaeda can’t subvert the Constitution. Terrorists can’t upend our civil liberties, suspend habeas corpus or order unwarranted spying. Only our officials can do such things. And being aware of those things happening leads one to the kinds of questions Katheryn Shields is asking.

The day before the president arrived in Kansas, the story broke about six Muslims, among hundreds of noncitizens rounded up just after 9/11 and held for months without charges or access to representation in a federal prison in Brooklyn, returning to sue U.S. authorities. If there is a bright note in all of this -- and no one is disputing that the plaintiffs were held without charges -- it is that mechanisms yet exist for even noncitizens so aggrieved to make their case in the legal system. The disturbing part, of course, is that 9/11 is used so readily as an excuse to suspend legal procedures and restraints on government.

Rachel Meeropol, a lawyer for some defendants in the case, said, “The post-9/11 domestic immigration sweeps were the first example of the Bush administration’s willingness to ignore the law and hold people outside the judicial system. The kind of torture, interrogation and arbitrary detention that we now associate with Guantánamo and secret CIA facilities really started right here, in Brooklyn.” The defendants claim that they were beaten regularly and otherwise mistreated during their detention. At least 10 guards and supervisors have been disciplined.

Federal officials, from the president on down, justify what is going on with the explanation that 9/11 changed everything, that it was, as an attack, different enough to override the rules as we know them. But was it? Maybe we’re reaching the point where we no longer fear to ask the question.

If a county executive in Missouri is raising the alarm, perhaps it’s not long before a whole lot of other people understand that fear could be causing us to lose sight of what’s most important.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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