Losing civil liberties

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The stock market roller-coaster, the corporate scandals, the wait for the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld War Cabinet to decide when to cancel Saddam, and the expectation of another terrorism attack here at home have all but overwhelmed the civil liberties debate.

The latest proposal by Attorney General John Ashcroft has really shaken-up those of us with memories of Stalinist and Hitlerite homeland security techniques. The Ashcroftian plan is to organize a civilian defense corps to spy on fellow citizens – that’s you and me. It was said that people like postmen, deliverymen, and repairmen who have access to our homes could inform authorities if they saw any suspicious terrorist activity.

It’s to be called Operation TIPS, Terrorism Information and Prevention System. The Post Office said, “Uh, uh – Not our people!” One letter carrier said he and his colleagues would report anything suspicions anyway as patriotic citizens, not as designated spies.

To put it bluntly, John Ashcroft scares me and apparently I’m in good company because some leading conservatives who supported Ashcroft’s appointment have expressed concern over his heavy-handed actions. He has, they said, overstated the evidence of terrorist threats. As you surely know, Ashcroft has declared that those who criticized his anti-terrorism policies were unpatriotic and he has deprived some detainees of access to a lawyer and habeus corpus – all of which echo the sound of hob-nail boots and the mid-night knock on your door.

The serious became the surreal when Ashcroft ordered the exposed breast of the noble statue of the Spirit of Justice in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice shrouded from the eyes of the public – the material cost us taxpayers $8-thousand. One wonders about the Ashcroftian fate of those Greek and Roman statues scattered unclothed in museums around the country.

It’s surprising that there has not been a very loud public outcry against Mr. Ashcroft’s creeping erosion of our civil liberties. Therein lies his greatest danger, say some critics, who see Ashcroft using his anti-terrorism campaign to acquire personal political power—they say he wants to be President, some day.

But there has been some media reaction, however muted. To avoid being called unpatriotic liberal columnist Michael Kinsley says he has to “consult his inner Ashcroft” before he writes anything. Mary McGrory writes that if the TIPS spies go into action she’s going to scatter conservative magazines around the house for the repairmen to see. And the New York Times said, “Attorney General John Ashcroft has a gift for making the most draconian policy changes sound seductively innocuous.”

This is Bill Seamans

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.

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