GAINESVILLE, FLA. — In waging his war on terrorism with Old Testament-like zeal, Attorney General John Ashcroft clearly believes moral certainty is on his side. Unfortunately, the law and consistency are inconvenient, and so he ignores them.
Instead, Mr. Ashcroft has played on people's fears, and their inability to assess threats, to do things that would have created a furor before Sept. 11.
America has a military justice system for those in uniform and for times of war, and a civil and criminal legal system used for the rest of us the rest of the time. Ashcroft has invented a third system a legal limbo without precedent where people, even American citizens, can be declared enemies of the state and held indefinitely and incommunicado without being charged.
Look at what has happened to the three Americans detained for their connections to the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Yasser Hamdi, the second American discovered to be involved with the Taliban, was born in the United States to Saudi Arabian parents. He is being held indefinitely without being charged, and is denied access to a lawyer or his relatives.
Then there is the case of Jose Padilla, the man recently accused of plotting with Al Qaeda to detonate a dirty bomb one designed to scatter radioactive material over a wide area. After holding him for more than a month, Ashcroft broke the news of Mr. Padilla's detention shortly after the commencement of congressional hearings on the intelligence and enforcement failures of the FBI. Like Mr. Hamdi, Padilla is being held indefinitely without charge and without access to a lawyer or friends.
In playing to our fears, Ashcroft does not let consistency, any more than the law, interfere with his actions. He prefers to appeal subliminally to racism as well as xenophobia.
John Walker Lindh, the first American taken prisoner for being in the Taliban, has been given remarkably different treatment from his darker-skinned colleagues. He has white, upper-middle-class parents who gave him everything but a good sense of right and wrong. Too many Americans might identify with that family, especially since Mr. Lindh cleaned himself up and now looks like the stereotypical 20-something American. So Lindh is charged, is going to trial in August, and enjoys free access to his lawyers and parents.
Ashcroft says the fight against terrorism is a fight for human rights, but he is not the only administration official whose pronouncements would make George Orwell blush. Last week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer countered questions about the handling of Padilla by citing the example of Hamdi and claiming "his case is being adjudicated through the court systems. And so even with these steps that are taken to protect the American nation, there are legal protections, legal rights, that are afforded."
The Justice Department, however, has blocked attempts by the Virginia federal public defender's office to meet with Hamdi, and when a federal district court ruled the public defender should be allowed to see him, Justice appealed. Apparently the right to an attorney is not on Mr. Fleischer's list of legal protections.
As ambassador to Peru, I often reminded anyone who would listen that a violation of one person's civil rights was a violation of everyone's rights.
Frequently the response was that such measures were necessary to win that country's long struggle against terrorism. There are those who say that even if Ashcroft's efforts to protect this country involve the violation of the rights of a few, they are justified because America is at war.
But if this is war, ask yourself what you have done to help. Have you paid more in taxes, bought war bonds, planted a victory garden, been drafted or called up (or even know someone who has)? Or have you simply remained silent while Ashcroft decides whose rights have to be sacrificed in the name of protecting us all?
If so, you are not in the minority. A new Gallup poll shows that 4 out of 5 Americans are ready to give up some of their freedoms in return for more security; nearly half worry about becoming victims of a terrorist attack. Ashcroft has done his work well.
Dennis Jett is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida.