BOSTON — It's hard to determine what moment in last Thursday afternoon exhibition of "performance art" by Attorney General John Ashcroft in front of the "kindler, gentler" Senate Judiciary Committee was the most disappointing: his refusal to acknowledge that some of his draconian measures go too far in the hunt for terrorists and endanger civil liberties; his refusal to admit that he had caved into the NRA lobby when he wouldn't allow the FBI to check the gun records of some those detained for questioning; or cliche efforts to insinuate that anyone who dared to question this administration's motives was "comforting the enemy." (The Justice Department later said the Attorney General only meant to clear up misunderstandings with these harsh statements, not really attack critics, but that's a little too much to swallow considering Ashcroft's demeanor.)
And be assured, it was performance art, designed not to answer the tough questions, but to do an "Oliver North" of a sort, by wrapping himself tightly in the American flag. He dismissed valid objections to his policies by civil libertarians on both the left and the right as the whining by a group that doesn't understand that what he is doing is in the best interests of the country -- even if it isn't in the best interests of the country.
And the Senate Judiciary Committee, ever mindful of the Washington mantra that looking for hard truths is a questionable career move when the poll numbers are against you, raised barely a peep of protest.
Ashcroft's performance seems to be part of an administration-wide effort to deny negative news of any kind. Last week, when American B-52 bombers killed scores of innocent villagers by accident, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld initially refused to acknowledge the incident, and said the whole thing was probably a fabrication of Al Qaeda, calling them world-class liars. Only one problem: Every major media outlet in the world had photos or video footage of the devastation wrought by these American "smart" bombs.
Meanwhile, Ashcroft said Thursday that his department has sought to "prevent terrorism with reason, careful balance, and excruciating attention to detail." But how is arresting and holding several hundred people in custody, of whom maybe a handful may have connections to terrorist activity (according to law enforcement officials) achieving a "careful balance"? Or in what way is asking 5,000 Middle Eastern men to just drop by for a chat about Osama "excruciating attention to detail"?
Just as puzzling is his dismissal of the American jury system. Ashcroft defended the idea of military tribunals by saying he didn't want an O.J. Simpson-style trial on cable TV. This seems an incredible knock against the idea that 12 Americans couldn't fairly decide Osama bin Laden's and others' fates without having their heads turned by the attention of TV. And who says the trial has to be televised? Neither the trial of those who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, nor the trial of Timothy McVeigh were televised, and the jury system worked fairly and justly in those cases.
On the other hand, Ashcroft defends the use of military tribunals by saying that he wants to protect the people who would be called as jurors by never having them called as jurors in the first place. Well, if you want to tell me that you couldn't find 12 Americans in the whole country who would be willing to participate in a jury trial because they were afraid of retaliation by Al Qaeda, I don't think you know the American people very well. More likely you would have a pool of 12 million willing jurors.
It was not unexpected that Ashcroft would defend his tactics. He's shown little willingness to curtail them. Indeed, he wants to expand his measures so not belonging to the right 'kind' of church group might get you thrown into jail as a terrorist. No, what was most troubling was Ashcroft's absolute refusal to acknowledge the very obvious fact that the potential to misuse these new measures is enormous.
We need more, not fewer, people demanding a better accounting of these over-the-top measures, to make sure that the government does not abuse them. Because as much as John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Tom Ridge, or even President Bush wink and say "Trust us, we know what we are doing," history has shown us that previous administrations, when given the chance, can and will abuse the law in order to accomplish their aims. To fight to make sure that this doesn't happen is not aiding Osama bin Laden, but aiding our country.