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RIGHTS AND THE NEW REALITY

Keep Power in Check

September 08, 2002

With the blast came fear, and a prominent leader spoke up: "As much as we want to get the terrorists, we want to do it in a methodical way that preserves our freedoms."

That's what then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said after a pipe bomb killed two at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Now, a year after the vastly more devastating attacks of Sept. 11, President Bush is pulling out all stops to prevent further slaughter. But he's reluctant to have his methods challenged.

So it's up to Congress and the courts, spurred by citizen watchdogs, to assertively remind him that democracy is held together with checks and balances, and that protecting America means preserving liberties, even in the age of terror.

Throughout the nation's history, enemies who might now be termed terrorists have threatened: British, Comanche, Confederates, Germans, Japanese and left-and right-wing radicals of every stripe.

How Americans contended with those who attacked with weapons and words has shaped the nation that today is braced against assault by Islamist fanatics.

Neither traditional warriors nor traditional criminals, these new enemies are particularly troublesome. What hasn't changed is a debate that was contentious from the moment Americans decided to shake free from England's king: How much freedom does the nation sacrifice in the interests of survival, and who decides?

Precedents Born in Crises

"I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it," declared Thomas Jefferson. Then, during a confrontation with France, John Adams used the new Alien and Sedition Acts to shut down Jeffersonian newspapers.

In the name of saving liberty, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, a time-honored right of prisoners to appear in open court and know the charges against them. Lincoln's administration rounded up thousands of civilians and tried suspected traitors before military tribunals. It tampered with freedom of the press. Supporters even arrested a preacher for failing to include a prayer for the president of the United States in a sermon.

"The Civil War," writes William Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court, "was the first time that the United States government mobilized for a major war effort, and a major war effort necessarily results in the curtailment of some civil liberties."

The war on terrorism is no exception. And the constriction of freedoms did not begin with the sweeping powers granted law enforcement agencies by the Patriot Act or the Bush administration's efforts to reinvent government by establishing a massive Homeland Security Department. Nor have the battle lines to protect freedom adhered to partisan lines.

Disappearance of Caution

As the Clinton administration scrambled to pass anti-terrorist legislation after the Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, conservatives railed against and finally blocked laws to give law enforcement more power. Then-Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) expressed a popular theme: "There is a greater fear in this country, and that is fear of our own government."

Lawmakers backed by the National Rifle Assn. used civil liberties arguments to defeat a measure that would have made it easier to track bomb makers by putting chemical markers in the ingredients used to make explosives. Republicans and the ACLU successfully opposed the Clinton administration's call for expanded wiretap authority, which would have given law officers the ability to listen in on every phone a suspect used.

Last September's destruction obliterated much of that caution, and roving wiretaps are now part of the anti-terror arsenal.

On Sept. 11, President Bush tried to reassure the nation: "Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America."

Good words. But in his actions, Bush himself was undermining the nation's constitutional footings.

Author Gore Vidal goes so far as to warn that the U.S. is in the grip of "metastasizing martial law."

That's overreaction. Few Americans are so naive as to mistake the approach of FBI wingtips for the sound of Nazi jackboots. But they do grasp the singular danger that Al Qaeda continues to pose.

Yet those who feel no chill at the Bush administration's post-9/11 power grab are in denial about government's age-old tendency to use a moment of fear to snatch away rights.

We want the government to prevent plotters from igniting a radioactive "dirty bomb" in Los Angeles Harbor. If the government catches someone pumping anthrax into Sears Tower, we want its agents to swiftly arrest, detain and prosecute.

But we want it done with the least possible impact on individual liberties.

In the next two days we'll offer a few thoughts on why a sensible, bipartisan resistance should work to rein in the president's understandable but ill-advised urge for more power and to restore the balance between rights and security in the age of terrorism--even in an election year.

*

Monday: When preventing terrorism and preserving freedom clash.

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