Being John Ashcroft

You think it's easy?

By Jonathan Valania
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 27, 2003

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And then 9/11 hit like an atom bomb, catching your unawares Department of Justice with its pants around its ankles. You acted quickly to rid the nation of the evildoers who walk among us, hiding behind the Constitution.

Your response was eerily Orwellian. Thousands were rounded up and detained, languishing in secret detentions for months, unofficially charged with the crime of being an Arab at the wrong place at the wrong time.

You refused to say who any of these people were or why they were being held. And when the press started to look into these detentions, you told your lawyers at the Department of Justice to do whatever was legally permissible to avoid complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

Out of the valley of the shadow of 9/11 you emerged with the USA Patriot Act, which unshackled law enforcement from the dictates of the Fourth Amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, household papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, will not be violated."

This fundamental principle of American liberty, you said in effect, was a relic from another era, like the "rotary telephone." Which is odd considering that only a few years ago, as a congressman, you wrote an impassioned defense of online privacy entitled "Keep Big Brother's Hands off the Internet."

"The Clinton administration would like the federal government to have the right to read any international or domestic computer communications," you wrote, adding, " ... the state's interest in effective crime-fighting should never vitiate the citizen's Bill of Rights." Apparently the Lord works in mysteriously partisan ways.

There has been much hue and cry over the Patriot Act. The provision that allows federal agents to monitor which books you check out of the library or purchase at the bookstore strikes most everyone as baldly un-American. More than 150 local governments--and the state legislatures of Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii--have passed resolutions condemning all or parts of the Patriot Act.

Last month the House of Representatives, that bastion of liberalism, voted 309-118 to suspend federal funding for so-called "sneak and peak" search warrants that allow government agents to slip into people's homes when they're away and rifle through their belongings and the contents of their hard drives.

That's a lot of doubting Thomases. And that's a problem as we ramp up to an election year wherein your boss will run on his strength and efficacy as the commander in chief in the War on Terror.

And so you are taking your case on the road, explaining to the American people the necessity of the Patriot Act. Curiously, it would seem that only the people in important swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, need convincing.

Even more curious, these speaking appearances are not open public forums. Rather, they entail carefully chosen sympathetic audiences: the archconservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute in Washington last Tuesday or a roomful of regional cop brass and prosecutors at the National Constitution Center last Wednesday.

Just 100 yards away a true American patriot, Benjamin Franklin, surely must have been rolling over in his grave at the corner of Fifth and Arch streets. He is the man, after all, who said: He who gives up essential liberty for a little temporary security deserves neither liberty nor security.

Jonathan Valania (jvalania@philadelphiaweekly.com) recently hit the campaign trail with Howard Dean.

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